What do mice, disc golf, and Tupac Shakur have in common with the future of engineering? From June 21-23, the University of Florida’s Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering hosted the 46th annual Southeastern Conference for Minority Engineers (SECME) competition for middle and high school students from the Southeast region of the U.S. Participants from schools in Texas, Alabama, and Florida competed in the categories of mousetrap car racing, AI coding and ethics, and VEX robotics.
The students gathered on UF’s campus for SECME’s first in-person competition since 2019. On the first day, the Orange and Blue room was full of the hopeful energy of 150 aspiring engineers hailing from Houston to Miami. UF’s Curtis Taylor, Ph.D., associate dean for student affairs, launched the opening ceremony, and his words inspired Houston Energized for Excellence student Motu Endrias.
“I was already interested in pursuing STEM, and at the orientation, Dr. Taylor’s talk was so inspiring,” Endrias said. “The more he said, the more I knew that I really wanted to do this. And I plan to come to UF for college, so it’s a good experience being here.”
The student competitions showcased expertise in mousetrap cars, VEX robotics, and a new pilot program focused on AI. All the projects, from the simple to the complex, involved the essential foundational understandings of engineering. Students not only had to create cars, robots, and AI chatbots that functioned, they had to show their work and the design decisions and strategy that shaped each project.
The cars were simple machines made with everyday materials, including CDs or spools for wheels, a mousetrap engine, and a length of filament wound around an axle. The participants were tasked with mapping out the entire process from concept to product. Students displayed a wide array of cars in different shapes and sizes. The competition was judged by a car’s speed, distance before running out of energy to move, and the ability to transport and not eject a passenger, which in this case was a tennis ball balanced atop the vehicle.
Erick Delvalle, an 8th grader from Ponce de Leon Middle School, explained, “There has to be a way to harness the potential energy of the spring, which would typically snap back very quickly and with a lot of force, to produce continuous energy for sustained movement.”
The Vex Robotics competition involved complex robots operated by remote control and possessed the advanced functionality to scoop up disks and hurl them into disc golf goals. Competing in a small arena, four robots scrambled to earn points by driving over, picking up plastic disks, and projecting them at a basket goal while enduring other robots’ Battle Bot, bumper-car-style interference. The machines were small feats of mechanical, electrical, and computer engineering.
“It takes the whole team [to build the robots],” said Tylor Bullock from the Energy Institute of Houston. “We all have all the electrical and mechanical engineering and coding skills. There are design flaws that we make during this, and we learn from them. I want to study mechanical engineering, and participating in events like this will open more doors for me.” Tylor’s group won second place in the VEX competition. The Coral Reef Senior High School Barracudas took the first–place win in Vex Robotics.
The myriad applications of these skills are not lost on future engineers like Maya Diaz from Rockway Middle School in Miami. “When I joined the robotics club our teacher taught us a lot about building and designing things,” Diaz said. “If a student wanted to go into architecture, they would have the skills to do that, or the skills to build a better submarine, a better airplane. Engineering teaches us that if we fail, we know how to improve it. No matter what, you can trust the process.”
This was the first year the SECME competition included a computer science engineering component. The pilot project was divided into two contests, a discussion on the ethicality of the use of AI facial recognition in public schools and coding an AI chatbot to answer questions with song lyrics from a chosen artist. The AI contest was designed to create contests for SECME tied to highly skilled technical engineering jobs of the future.
For the ethics competition, the Young Women’s College Preparatory Academy team of Houston, Gianna Fountain, Dijah Ayala, and Alyssa Parker, brought up real concerns of individual privacy insofar as facial recognition data mining and the implications of behavioral profiling and pulled a third-place award for their presentation. For this contest, students had to present their positions on the use of facial recognition AI for cashless payments in schools, student behavior monitoring, and school entry and classroom access.
In the AI chatbot competition, Fort Lauderdale Cypress Bay high school students Peter Yungman, Ethan Wolfe, and Diego Tahares created an Ariana Grande chatbot. When the text input asked, “Where are you?” Ariana Grande, the chatbot, replied, “You know we hit that jewelry store.” Their presentation landed them in second place. The first-place winners, Marquis Lockett and Dylan Holmes of Leflore High School in Mobile, Ala., programmed a Tupac chatbot programmed to respond to queries with inspirational quotes and, when asked for life advice, offered- “Keep hustling ‘til the money comes.”
Nancy Ruzycki, Ph.D., an instructional associate professor in the Department of Materials Science & Engineering, is the principal investigator of a grant from the Florida Department of Education, Career and Technology Division to teach middle and high school teachers about the new Florida AI Career Frameworks and courses and to support teachers in building foundational knowledge for the teaching of AI concepts. As part of this grant, Ruzycki received $50,000 to design and develop the middle and high school AI contest for SECME and bring Florida SECME students to the pilot AI contest. Over 15 teams and nearly 50 students participated in the AI contest.
“SECME has always had mousetrap cars and water bottle rockets, which is great. Having an AI component acknowledges the shifting landscape of computer engineering,” she said. “AI is the future. The next wave of engineering is computation based. We came up with this concept for an AI contest that focuses on ethics and design. Moving forward, we will add this to the roster as we modernize SECME.”
For many students, this was their first trip away from home, their first trip away from their families, and their first time visiting a college campus. Some expressed motivation to continue their STEM and engineering education, and some hoped to one day matriculate at UF. Carla Lett, a coordinator from Williamson in Mobile, Alabama, hopes that the SECME competition event “Gives them exposure to learn some new things and to open them up to new experiences.”