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How A2RL is Inspiring a New Generation of Tech Talent

A2RL’s STEM Program wants to upend the education system by fostering an early interest in the sciences.

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The Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League (A2RL) promises to take the world of autonomous racing by storm on April 27 at Abu Dhabi’s Yas Marina Circuit. By combining Artificial Intelligence (AI) and autonomous robotics with motorsport, the racing league aims to revolutionize mobility.

On the sidelines of the races in the adjacent Fan Zone, high school and university students will steer one-eighth-scale, electric-powered, four-wheel-drive racecars with a top speed of 100 km/h to the finish line. Here, A2RL’s STEM Program students will get a chance to showcase the results of 3 months of training in coding for autonomous vehicles.  

Organized by ASPIRE, a subsidiary of Abu Dhabi’s Advanced Technology Research Council (ATRC), A2RL is part of a series of projects that aim to find novel solutions to society’s biggest challenges. Through projects like A2RL, ASPIRE aims to pioneer future transformative technologies that will drive the diversification of Abu Dhabi’s economy and make the emirate a global R&D hub for autonomous systems.

Beyond the spectacle, however, the races aim to improve road safety by developing autonomous technology that can act as a co-pilot to human drivers on the road.  

As part of its mandate, A2RL includes a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) Program, which includes 173 students aged 16-21 from 17 high schools, universities, and robotic institutions from across the UAE, as well as one Detroit-based group from the Boys and Girls Club of America.

Through the program, A2RL aims to inspire and inform the next generation of STEM talent.

“A lot of people get turned off by subjects like science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, and we see a huge problem with gender bias in these areas as well. We believe it’s extremely important to engage people in the uses and demonstrations of these subjects from an early age,” Tom McCarthy, executive director of ASPIRE, tells us.

McCarthy, who has spent half of his career in education, is a strong proponent of “action-based learning.” He tells us that ASPIRE’s vision is to create a global STEM program with a feeder system of schools from the teams that compete in the headline races.

“STEM is not an add-on. It’s part of our driving philosophy,” says McCarthy, adding that children will be a key lobby for autonomous technology in the future. According to him, using the technology first-hand can demystify the technology and get them on board with the different use cases.

The Future of STEM Learning

Throughout the 3-month-long program, the STEM students attended 11 workshops and online lectures, covering topics like the “Fundamentals of Autonomous Vehicles” and “Strategy, Race Control, and Decision Making.” Students also participated in 8 practical exercises using a state-of-the-art cloud-based simulator.

Amal Al Marri, STEM Program Manager at ASPIRE, tells us that a total of 18 teams from as many institutions participated in the pre-race training sessions. 10 teams will be selected to participate in race day challenges based on their performance at the training sessions.

After the race, participating teams will be allowed to take the autonomous STEM cars back to their institutions, “allowing them to continue their development in autonomy and programming,” she says.

“Further down the track, ASPIRE will launch a whole new STEM program with the objective of furthering youth engagement,” she adds.

The students participating in the races were selected based on nominations from ADNOC Yas in Schools, a joint initiative by Yas Marina Circuit and the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) that offers schools project-based STEM learning programs across Abu Dhabi. The Emirates School Establishment in Dubai (ESE) and the United Arab Emirates University (UAEU) were also invited to nominate institutions to participate in the challenges.

Other partners include Autonoma Labs, a US-based autonomous technology company, which developed the simulation, autonomy software, and program curriculum, as well as Alp Autonomy, a Turkey-based startup that manufactured the 1:8 scale autonomous racing cars.

“Education is an inherently conservative system. I think we can act as a catalyst to change by introducing new things into our teaching programs,” says McCarthy, adding that ASPIRE has plans to integrate a STEM component across all its challenges. ASPIRE is also in talks with the Emirati Ministry of Education to incorporate the program into the curricula.

“By creating something exciting that works, I think we have a great chance of influencing the system,” he adds.  

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