March 4, 2004

Science Fair Exhibits 'Bits On Our Minds'

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Three floors of Upson Hall bustled yesterday as students, faculty and residents of all ages came to see robots, airplanes, submarines, video games, computer animation and many other displayed projects. The attractions were showcased in Bits On Our Mind (BOOM), a science fair put on by the Computing and Information Science (CIS) department at Cornell.


The projects ran the gamut of fields of interest, ranging from robot automation to protein analysis, but all involved computer science. For some, the computer was just one part of the system; for others, programming was the entire project.

Patricia Reeder ’04 and her partner Jonathan Darvill grad developed a simulation of the board game Labyrinth, in which a player manipulates the incline of a maze to navigate a marble around holes and to a final position. Using a technique called a neural network, in which a computer uses trial and error to learn out how to manipulate its world, Reeder and Darvill programmed the computer how to teach itself the game.

Two floors up, the Cornell For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) Robotics team showed off last year’s robot. FIRST is a competition in which high school students work with mentors to create a robot to accomplish some specific task, which changes every year. Last year’s competition involved stacking large plastic boxes on top of one another.

Computers are used not only for controlling the robot’s engines, but also to guide the robot during a 15 second period when it must be autonomous, explained Matthew Bays grad. Autonomy means that the computer acts completely on its own, with no human guidance. At BOOM, however, FIRST team members showed off their robot by zipping it across the room by remote control, much to spectators’ delights.

“It seems to be a hit each year,” Bays said.

Also present at the exhibit were some of Cornell’s more prominent engineering projects, such as the Cornell University Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (CUAUV) and RoboCup.

CUAUV is a competition in which teams design a submarine to automatically complete some task. Like the FIRST competition, this task changes every year. Last year’s competition had submarines maneuver to and drop markers onto one of three boxes, as indicated by lights on the floor. In RoboCup, a team of autonomous robots play soccer against other teams from around the world. Both teams placed first in their respective competitions last year.

BOOM’s faculty advisor, Prof. Emin Gun Sirer, computer science, said that BOOM has two goals: “teach out and teach in.” For the computer science community at Cornell, BOOM provides an opportunity for students to share their work with one another, but Sirer said that it also aims to get students who are undecided about their major or not even in college yet interested in computer science.

Sirer also noted that “the [participating] students are drawn from all of Cornell. They’re not just computer science.”

One such display was a compilation of various short animated films created by students of ART 273 / CIS 518: Computer Animation, a course jointly registered by the College of Engineering and the College of Architecture, Art and Planning.

Jeff Wang ’04, a biological engineer who took the course and whose film was one of those shown at BOOM, said that the chance to exhibit his was “a lot of fun. When you see your final presentation, it’s a sense of accomplishment.”

Visitors to the event seemed to be very impressed by the various presentations they saw.

“It almost makes us want to go back to school,” said Prof. Emeritus Ronald Furry ’53, biological and environmental engineering. “[The students] show a lot of eagerness.”

Guillaume Girad grad, who is in the computer science department but did not exhibit a project at BOOM, said that there were “a lot of fun projects, like games and animation.” He said that he found these visual projects more appealing than projects which required an understanding of the mathematics behind them.

According to BOOM’s website, it was started in 1998 and has grown each year since then. This year, more than 140 students represented 64 different teams, an increase from 50 teams last year, according to Sirer. He attributed this growth to the increased importance that computers play in every aspect of our lives, and added that the variety of projects on display is a testament to that phenomenon.

Sirer was very pleased with the turnout and atmosphere at BOOM. He described it as “extremely lively,” adding that so many people came that he was not even able to give an estimate of the turnout. He said that he did not see any reason to change an already successful format, and next year’s BOOM will duplicate this one.

The public show of enthusiasm did not seem to be lost on the participants.

“It’s been fun. There’s been a lot of interest,” said Joe Golden grad, who is part of the RoboCup team.

RoboCup had out one of its robots, which are cylindrical vehicles with four wheels that let them drive in any direction, regardless of where the robot is facing. Team members drove the robots around by remote control. Golden said that people liked them a lot, joking, “we could totally use these to pick up girls.”

Archived article by Yuval Shavit