November 2018. Collaboration and computational thinking are just two of the skills required for AutonoMate, as Mt Roskill Grammar School students discover when coding semi-autonomous model cars to navigate the Innovation Zone’s challenging courses.
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A model car retrofitted with sensors and wires sits in the middle of a table where secondary students cluster around a laptop and a whiteboard. Everyone has a role – some draw on the whiteboard, figuring out how the car would reverse out of a hypothetical collision with cardboard boxes; others write their ideas on sticky notes and pass these to Yash, poised at the laptop, who turns the team’s thinking into code.
“There’s so much work,” said team member Shriya, who, like the others, is an electronics technology student from Mt Roskill Grammar School in Auckland.
“If we go step by step, it makes it easier,” added a team mate.
They’re all in Year 10 and taking quick steps into the practicalities of computational thinking.
More teams fill this room, in the NZ Transport Agency’s Innovation Zone, a unit located in central Auckland that works with professionals and educators around how digital technologies can support innovation in the country’s transport system.
When the student team is ready for testing, they take the car and laptop and head into a huge white hall (a former movie studio) where courses are marked out with duct tape on the floor. It’s time to see if their coding will get their car where it’s meant to go.
Innovation Zone Manager Dr Luke Krieg says the one-day pilot programme with Mt Roskill Grammar students uses the Transport Agency’s AutonoMate cars, which are based on a remote-control car chassis. Retrofitted sensors and control boards allow students to programme the cars using Arduino, an open source software and hardware package for interactive devices.
The project lets students work with the context of autonomous vehicles at a time when society at large is responding to fastmoving changes in transport technology.
“The main thing is to give these kids the feeling they’re part of the conversation about the future of transport,” said Luke. “The infrastructure we’re building is really for them and they will pick it up and influence future developments in time.
“For New Zealand, both in the transport context and more generally, it’s great to have kids who learn by doing, who are not afraid to get hands-on and who are not afraid of science or technology or maths. Maths is not boring – it’s useful, it’s fun and you can do new things with it.”
The school’s technology teachers Murray MacDiarmid and Renay Kippen believe the event adds to students’ programming knowledge. The school offers electronics classes right through to Year 13.
We build our own microprocessors and printed circuit boards,” explained Murray. “Our senior projects are designed to be open ended and authentic. One of my Year 13 projects is a student working for the physics department to illustrate the resonance of sound in a pipe – it’s a teaching tool. I’ve never seen this before and it has a real practical purpose.”
Murray and Renay both agree the AutonoMate event gets the students thinking about emerging technologies.
“There’s a lot of disruptive technology nowadays. We’re driving cars today and that’s going to be disrupted in the next 10 to 20 years, maybe,” said Renay.
The teachers see value in learning through a team setting that mirrors professional practice. “With students of mixed ability, the group work lets everybody contribute. The leadership is distributed among the members and they’re all important parts of the structure. Everyone has a fair say because they’ve all got specialised roles within the team.”
Our student team takes their car to the test site. They cluster around the laptop (on loan for the day, thanks to Microsoft), tap some keys and off the car goes. This first basic run is a success, so they head back to the whiteboard to plan more complex instructions. Back at their table, the team chat about progress.
“We’re really striving. We took half an hour to work out what commands we need for moving from the start to the box,” said Shriya.
The team’s mentor is Fred Fogerty, a software engineering student from the University of Auckland (every team has a mentor, with volunteers also from AUT and the Transport Agency).
“It’s really cool that these students have this opportunity,” he said. “They’re doing well. The key thing is that they understand the programming concepts for themselves.”
Team member Kaiyan added: “We want to do this for our career, we really like to work with electronics.”
Their teacher Murray considers the big picture behind those career thoughts. “We’re getting them engaged and believing that they can think about big problems. Ultimately, it’s about how you can make a difference in the world and that you’re drawing on your skills to do it.”
*A version of this article first appeared in New Zealand Interface magazine.