JULY 1, 2021 — The University of Texas at San Antonio will host its second annual ExploreSTEM@UTSA event to increase access to San Antonio students living with disabilities. The event will be presented by the UTSA Departments of Computer Science, Interdisciplinary Learning and Teaching, and Geological Sciences.
Co-directed by Wei Wang, assistant professor of computer science, and Kathy Ewoldt, assistant professor in the Department of Interdisciplinary Learning and Teaching, the UTSA summer camp will teach the fundamentals of programming and artificial intelligence with a focus on autonomous vehicles.
“Computer science has great career opportunities. Its jobs pay very well and are suitable for any people, with or without disabilities,” Wang said. “However, without good guidance, it is hard to get started in computer science.”
According to statewide reporting, some Texas K-12 schools struggled to offer disability curriculum during the coronavirus pandemic. UTSA’s additional support helps meet this immediate community and regional need.
“We want to make sure parents know that great opportunities exist. I want to offer the program this summer to give kids a chance to know computer science, to know the possibility of a computer science career,” Wang added.
At ExploreSTEM@UTSA, students will be provided a hands-on programming and machine learning experience to build autonomous driving, lane-detecting vehicles. The students will learn about basic computer programming concepts, programming skills, computer vision and data science. Through these activities, students gain a glimpse of what it is like to work in the STEM fields of software engineering and data science.
In addition, each day a guest speaker working in STEM fields will be invited to interact with the students to discuss their STEM-related careers and their individual professional journeys. The program will culminate with online testing of their AI models on dash camera videos.
“Promoting STEM careers to high school students with disabilities creates beneficial opportunities to everyone involved,” said Ewoldt, who will provide strategy training to tutors as well. “Students experience victory over challenges and build excitement about the numerous different careers that comprise STEM. The STEM fields benefit because the more diverse the workforce that brings multiple perspectives into a conversation, the more innovative the solutions that will be found.”
Last year, a blind student with some coding experience was able to successfully program AI for autonomous lane detection. The ExploreSTEM@UTSA teaching and learning experience revealed flaws that could only be encountered by people with complete blindness while using screen reader-assistive technology as a computer programmer. Revelation of these flaws has led UTSA researchers to some innovative possibilities that are currently being explored for research and development.
“This is a great example of how a computer scientist learned of a user-interface deficiency or problematic barrier that may not have otherwise been exposed,” Ewoldt explained. “It’s also a great example of how UTSA supports our local community and the next generation of cyber scientists.”
The UTSA program is a collaboration with the Texas Workforce Commission, which helps refer students. The goal this summer is to expand enrollment to about 30 participants from middle and high schools.
Other UTSA faculty that will teach in the camp include Alberto Mestas-Nuñez, associate professor in practice in the Department of Geological Sciences, and Mimi Xie, assistant professor in computer science. ExploreSTEM@UTSA will have two separate sessions and is open to all San Antonio students with a disability. The camp starts August 2.
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