College of Engineering News Room
CARRT Community Partnership Gives Local Students Tech Career Experience
by Russell Nay
In the Assistive Robotics Laboratory in the Kopp Engineering Building, Jillian Stover was surrounded by tools, prototypes and robotics projects. She held a small, four-wheeled robot that she had assembled and programmed herself.
Stover spent 80 hours in a lab of the USF Center for Assistive, Rehabilitation and Robotics Technologies (CARRT) as part of a collaboration between Tampa-based nonprofit Hands On Education and CARRT where she learned the basics of coding in Python, coding with C++ and developing Android apps. The robot, and the certificate of completion she was presented during her graduation ceremony, were tangible representations of all her hard work.
“It was great working at USF for my internship,” she said. “I did learn a lot through this program.”
Developed in 1998, Hands On Education provides paid vocational training experiences to young adults with mild or moderate learning disabilities or physical disabilities. Program director John Ficca said Hands On Education has currently employed 15 of its students at partner organizations across Hillsborough County, including at parks and recreation facilities, animal control, fleet management and at USF.
“We are so strong because of all our community partners coming together,” Ficca said. “What USF has done is given us a successful setting for employing (program students). We see that as an opportunity for developing skills and for self-discovery.”
The program focuses on matching students’ abilities to potential employers, and program training manager Mike Cornelius said students that work at CARRT all have potential for working in tech.
“The focus on participants at this lab is on those who are on top of their cognitive abilities and have high levels of aptitude,” Cornelius said.
Over the course of the three-semester collaboration between Hands On Education and CARRT, CARRT lead researcher and USF Mechanical Engineering research professor Redwan Alqasemi, Ph.D., said that seven of the program’s students have been paid to spend five to 15 hours a week learning programming concepts, use of an Arduino or Raspberry Pi or 3D modeling for engineers.
Hands On program director John Ficca and program training manager Mike Cornelius visited one of the CARRT labs at USF for Stover’s graduation. (From left to right: John Ficca, Karen Stover, Jillian Stover, Mike Stover, Mike Cornelius)
Alqasemi said that every student CARRT staff meets through the program is unique and that, as a center focused on assistive and rehabilitation technologies, these students’ time in the lab can offer valuable new perspectives.
“I’ve often found that engineers need to get outside the box,” Alqasemi said. “We can make something that we think is great, but we don’t see the people that use the technology. That’s why this particular merge of machines and humans is really unique.”
This partnership also fits into CARRT’s existing vocational rehabilitation projects. CARRT director Rajiv Dubey, Ph.D., said the center spent more than four years working on a virtual reality system built for vocational rehabilitation and tested it specifically for individuals with autism spectrum disorders. More than 25 publications and conferences papers were written about the system — Virtual Reality for Vocational Rehabilitation — over the life of its corresponding research project.
“(In this internship program), CARRT provides a close to real-world, flexible and friendly environment to learn various job skills,” Dubey said. “Such a setting with graduate students as mentors is best suited for individuals with autism spectrum disorders, as they need customized training.”
“We’re privileged to have this partnership,” said CARRT assistant director Stephen Sundarrao. “The insight and perspective that we get from the members of our team with disabilities will better ensure the acceptance of our technologies in society.”
A Hillsborough Community College Computer Engineering Technology student, Stover told her CARRT internship mentor Urvish Trivedi, a graduate student in mechanical engineering, about her ambitions to study cybersecurity after getting an associate’s degree. Trivedi tailored her curriculum for the semester appropriately, which consisted of Python, C++ and Android app development tutorials for 10 hours a week.
Toward the end of her internship, she was able to program a moving robot in C++ resembling a small remote-control car. Stover said if she had the chance to take a repeat internship with CARRT, she’d be interested in learning another coding language through the program.
“He was really helpful when I had any questions about the program I was working on,” she said. “He answered a lot of my questions, and that helped me through my internship.”
Trivedi has been a mentor for six students in the internship program — one of them is now a USF Mechanical Engineering student — and he said that Stover was one of the most talented he’s worked with. He said that many students in the program are raw talents and capable of coming up with unconventional solutions that can give them an edge in solving challenging coding problems quickly.
“There were many times when Jillian would crack the most difficult problem (in a tutorial) without needing to see the solution — she did it from her own knowledge,” Trivedi said. “She has a really good grasp (on programming), and now it’s up to her to keep going.”
Stover recently started taking honors classes in her program and plans to transfer to USF once she finishes at HCC. Stover’s father, Mike Stover, is a 1973 USF mathematics alumnus and said that her Python curriculum was a great intro to coding for technical implementation.
“Jillian had a great opportunity to work with a grad student, and the Hands On staff made a great connection,” Mike Stover said. “What she learned at the CARRT lab will help her in her future.”
During Jillian Stover’s graduation ceremony, her mother Karen Stover thanked CARRT staff for their interest in working with Jillian Stover during her time at the lab.
“This was a great experience and a great program for Jillian,” Karen Stover said. “I’m very appreciative to USF, CARRT, Dr. Alqasemi and Urvish for spending time with her and helping her grow.”
Alqasemi told Jillian Stover during her graduation that she should think of CARRT as a second home and to stay in touch with their lab staff as she develops into a tech professional. While CARRT students and researchers are involved in a number of community outreach efforts including summer camps, Engineering Expo, Great American Teach-Ins and student lab visits, Alqasemi said this program is different.
“It’s not a short trip where students come and go,” he said. “It creates a different type of interaction … and after they graduate from the program, we always tell them, ‘You’re an alumni of CARRT now, and you’re welcome to come any time.’ They know everybody in the lab, people in the lab know them and they can keep that interaction going.”
In the future, Alqasemi said he’d like to scale up the program by having around 10 grad students — instead of one per year — simultaneously mentoring students from a variety of vocational rehabilitation partners with an expanded curriculum and in collaboration with the Florida Department of Education.
“The students come out of the program very happy with this experience,” he said. “I would like to see this flourish to where we have a full-time classroom dedicated specifically for persons with cognitive disabilities to teach them skills and work habits.”
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