Summer Blog Series: Highlights from The Bulletin (#9)

Our Summer blog series continues through early September, as we share some of our favorite articles published this past year in The Bulletin. Enjoy! 

Student Spotlight:  A Brief Story of My Summer Internship

By Sam Wheeler, current Twelfth Grader

During the summer of 2016, between Tenth and Eleventh grades, I returned to my home city, Beijing, to attend an engineering internship. The internship took place at Tsinghua University, where my grandfather is a professor emeritus; he specialized in artificial intelligence and taught there for 40 years before he retired.  I was lucky to have the opportunity to join the post-graduate robotics department for a whole month where my grandfather’s students, the robotics professors, were teaching.

First, I would like to give a background of Tsinghua University itself: Tsinghua University was established in 1911 using funds donated by the US and is a comprehensive research university with 20 schools and 54 departments covering disciplines in art, economics, education, engineering, history, management, medicine, law, literature, philosophy, and sciences. Its strong research and training offerings consistently place Tsinghua University as one of the top academic institutions in China, alongside Peking University.  Of course, this leads to the belief in many Chinese people's minds that these two universities are the only two worth graduating from in China, in the same way that they consider Harvard and Yale to be the “only” two schools in the US. 

Situated in northwestern Beijing, Tsinghua University’s campus has been named one of the most beautiful in the world. The campus, which was established on the site of a former royal garden, contains beautiful buildings that are over a century old, with Stalin-esque monstrosities modeled after Soviet era architecture, and beautiful modern buildings designed by incredible architects. It is safe to say that Tsinghua University is an incredibly unique university.

For my internship, my first task was to write an essay on the future of robotics, particularly the domestication of robots. I was asked to consider the current technology in the field and its availability, as well as the practicality of domestic robots and its possible impact on society in general. After a week of intensive research on the matter, I presented my report to the professor in charge, and he took it in for review. I was given two more tasks for the remainder of my internship, which were to assist the post-graduates with any experiments they needed help with, and to teach myself during the time in between.

Over the next few weeks, I would help with the experiments of the two main focuses in the department. One of the focuses was an autonomous bike designed for delivery through busy situations, like the streets of a big city. Not only that, the bike needed the durability to travel moderate distances with a heavy payload. I was told that a completely autonomous real time detection system needed incredibly complex code, and it required a great deal of adjustments. I assisted with these adjustments, and learned the improvisational capacity of post-graduates were almost limitless. Instead of properly setting up obstacles, they would place a bag of soccer balls, or even just run around the bike themselves to test the code.

The other focus of the department was designing a humanoid robot capable of playing sports. This meant that the robot would need agility, speed, and most importantly, balance. It took a massive compilation of code to get the robot to walk without falling over, and with this group, I assisted with guiding the robot while they tested its balance on a soccer field. By the end of the internship I had assisted in multiple experiments and gained a deeper knowledge of engineering and robotics. During the intermittent times between the experiments, I taught myself three new coding languages: JavaScript, HTML and CSS.

When my professor returned my report, he said that it was a very useful insight on the future of robotics and that he would possibly use it in an investment pitch to potential donors for the robotics department.

During my time there, I discovered that as a post-graduate, it is entirely up to them to build their projects and to create a reasonable schedule. Of course, the professor will be there intermittently to be a guide, but the bulk of responsibility lies on the post-graduate to create the project, mark the deadlines, and to create a schedule so that the result is high quality. This extends to daily schedules as well; if confident in their own abilities, they can change their working hours to suit them, and in doing so gain the ability to self-manage more appropriately.