University of Texas at Austin


Local High Schoolers Enjoy Hands-On Robotic Experience

By Rebecca Riley

Published March 31, 2023

High school student Jacob Rodriguez controls a robotic arm with a smartphone app.

The Oden Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences at The University of Texas at Austin welcomed two local high school groups for a tour of the Oden Institute, the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC) VisLab and the Robotics lab. Students from the Liberal Arts and Science Academy (LASA) toured on February 10th to learn about the Oden Institute's computing research in societal grand challenges across science, engineering and medicine. Students from Del Valle High School toured on March 24th,  as part of a collaborative outreach project sponsored by NASA University Leadership Initiative (ULI). 

The LASA students began their visit with a tour of the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC) VisLab housed within the Oden Institute. Director Karen Willcox gave students an overview of research being conducted in the areas in astronomy, climate, earthquakes and oncology. Oden Institute researchers Patrick Heimbach, Omar Ghattas, Stella Offner and Tom Yankeelov talked to the students about research by their respective centers and groups. 


Dr. Karen Willcox overviews Oden Institute research in astronomy, climate modeling, earthquake modeling, and computational oncology to visiting high school students.

Though a scheduling conflict prevented Del Valle students from touring the VisLab, we hope to see them come back in the future to use it as computational scientists and engineers. 

All students were treated to a tour of the Robotics lab at Anna Hiss Gym with the opportunity to run a remote-controlled robotic dog on a path designed from colorful foam tiles, competing for the fastest time. Each visit saw a close race, with most students clocking in under a minute. Jessie Quattrociochi, Engineering Scientist Associate at the Oden Institute’s Center for Autonomy, explained in informal small group sessions how drones are built using a 3D printer and which software programs are used to fly them.


Del Valle High School student Rihanna Elliot leads a robotic dog.

Next, the students visited the downstairs lab where graduate student Philip Zhao taught them how to control a robotic arm with the help of a smartphone app. With a little practice, students could use the arm to pick up and move wooden blocks.

Del Valle teacher Tina Jansen said the students enjoyed getting hands on time with the robots. "They enjoyed seeing different things that can be accomplished in the computational sciences (CS) field. I think it's beneficial for students to see this because CS can be applied in just about anything in today's world."

The NASA University Leadership Initiative (ULI) project called Autonomous Aerial Cargo Operations at Scale, is headed by Ufuk Topcu, with Karen Willcox and John-Paul Clarke of the Cockrell School of Engineering as Co-PIs. The primary goal of the research is to develop methods that could be used to validate the cost and scalability of autonomous cargo vehicles.