Meharry data science summer academy opens students eyes to bright future

Meharry Data Science Summer Academy and Dr. Sian Proctor

On July 17 – 29, 17 students mostly from underrepresented backgrounds, learned to apply coding and data science to robotics on the Meharry Medical College campus.

The students were attending the Meharry Data Science Summer Academy, funded by NASA through the Minority University Research and Education project and provided to students at no cost. NASA’s goal is to support the dreams of students from traditionally underrepresented and underserved communities to enter careers in science, technology, engineering and math.

In addition to courses in programming, robotics and data science, special sessions featured Black professionals in data science and robotics, including Dr. Sian Proctor, the first Black woman to pilot a spacecraft.

The overwhelming message was clear. A future in science and technology is within each student’s grasp.

“Dean Mhlanga told us on the first day that we all have our own dominion in this world,” says Jamal Wicker, a senior at Pearl Cohn Entertainment High School. “Dr. Proctor, in her welcome video, said everyone has their black magic, their own unique talents. And this camp has confirmed that. The whole group has confirmed that if you work hard you can achieve it. You can do it.”

Valeria Romero, a ninth grader at the Nashville School of the Arts, agreed.

“This has taught me that computer science or being in the tech world is not as hard as you think,” says Romero. “I feel like everybody can do it with the right amount of studying and determination. If you put your mind to it, you can get there.”

SACS faculty introduced students to Python, a popular programming language for data science, through hands-on activities building robots. They also learned how NASA uses programming languages in general and some of the Python applications at NASA. Other classes covered topics such as geospatial data science with NASA big data access, UAV guidance navigation and control, remote sensing and the search for life on Mars, and counter asteroid robotics nets research.

The students also saw firsthand how artificial intelligence is advancing robotics through a live presentation of a Go1 Side Intelligent Robot. Stokes Education, the North American distributor of Unitree Quadruped Robots, brought the sophisticated quadruped robot, also known as a robotic dog.

“Everything is awesome, but I love the lectures because I liked to learn — remote sensing, coding and all of it,” says Wicker.

Romero enjoyed exploring the connections between art and science.

“I am more of an art person, but I love to know what is behind it.” says Romero. 

Several Black professionals in robotics shared their inspiring stories and the career potential of data science and robotics.

Meharry SACS student Brittany City, a lead data analyst in product data science at HP, and Creea Shannon, from the Meharry Center for Health Policy, spoke about data science and its career opportunities. Robert Johnson, field engineer at Universal Logic discussed his work in robotics. They also met, virtually, Kenneth Harris, the deputy lead integration engineer for the NASA James Webb Telescope’s Integrated Science Instrument Module Electronic Components.

But the highlight of the program was a visit from Dr. Sian Proctor – geoscientist, explorer, space artist, and astronaut – and the first Black woman to pilot a spacecraft.

“Meeting Dr. Proctor felt like a great privilege to me and a once in a lifetime dream come true,” says Wicker.

Wicker was also impressed that Dr. Proctor earned her spot on Inspiration4 through her art, rather than her science background.

“That tells me to value all your skills and talents because you never know where they’ll take you and that the possibilities are endless!”

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