NASA grant funds Meharry precollege program for underrepresented students

data science academy

NASA has awarded Meharry School of Applied Computational Sciences and Fisk University funding to engage underrepresented high school students in a collaborative, interactive data science program.

The $418,448 award will fund the Collaborative Interactive Data Science Academy. Meharry SACS and Fisk intend to stimulate curiosity in the cross-cutting field of data science and emerging technologies in the minds of students who would otherwise not have an opportunity to explore them.

Fortune Mhlanga

“This is an exciting opportunity to expose underrepresented high school students to some of the latest applications of data science and robotics,” says Dean Fortune S. Mhlanga, Ph.D. “We want to open their eyes to a future full of possibilities through science and show them they can create their own path in this world.”

The Collaborative Interactive Data Science Academy is a residential, week-long summer experience that implements virtual, augmented, and mixed reality control of robotic systems using NASA geospatial and extra-terrestrial big data. Students will build statistical and critical thinking skills through exposure to NASA research and data science tools.

“We seek to inspire with immersive data and interfaces such as Virtual, Augmented, Mixed Reality, (VR/AR/MR) and diversify the next generation of explorers, researchers and data scientists,” says Eugene Levin, Ph.D., professor, spatial data science, who will lead the program as principal investigator for the grant.

Eugene Levin

The program will begin with introductions to robotics and sessions outlining spatial data and the function of robots on Earth and in a potential future colonization of the Moon and Mars. The recent NASA “Artemis” on the Moon and “Perseverance” on Mars missions are making this future a present reality. Students will work together in interactive, gaming-like activities inspired by NASA missions using VR/MR/AR.

“Students will work together to virtually program robots on the moon from a station on Earth and to program a robot on Mars to retrieve an item,” says Dr. Levin. “Through virtual reality, these projects and others will make data science and robotics come alive.”

Students will also meet and visit with engaging speakers involved in various applications of robotics and data science as well as Dr. Sian Proctor, the first Black woman to pilot a spacecraft.

Students will also enjoy a college-like experience while living and dining on Fisk’s campus. This residential component adds additional time for evening astronomical observations by telescope.

“We at Fisk and Meharry understand the importance of engaging youth in exciting STEM projects to spark their curiosity and develop their sense of scientific identity,” say Kent Wallace, Ed.D., dean of graduate studies at Fisk, who will lead the collaborative efforts for the university. “It is exciting to think our program might be the event that influenced a student to become a future NASA scientist or astronaut.” 

The Collaborative Interactive Data Science Academy will start in the summer of 2023 and take place for five years. That longevity of the program, made possible by NASA funding, allows for ongoing student engagement, even after each program concludes.

“We look forward to seeing how each student’s experience inspires further exploration in data science and robotics,” says Dr. Levin. “Everyone at Meharry is passionate about exposing these students to data science. We can’t wait to see how their future unfolds.”

In addition to Dr. Levin the program will be handled by co-principal investigators team that includes: Todd Gary, Ph.D., director, external research development partnership and program facilitator, and David Lockett, grants proposal development and awards management specialist and the program director. Vibhuti Gupta Ph.D., assistant professor, computer science and data science, will serve as data science instructor for programming Raspberry Pi and robots. Uttam Ghosh, Ph.D., associate professor of cybersecurity, will be the cybersecurity instructor and teach ethical hacking and cyber defense.

NASA partner logo

The NASA funding was made through the Minority University Research and Education project. In total, more than $3 million was awarded to seven Historically Black Colleges and Universities and one Predominantly Black Institution to strengthen their support for students in traditionally underrepresented and underserved communities in precollege summer programs around the nation.

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