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AutonoMate – coding cars to model the future of transport

The NZ Transport Agency’s innovation team engaged secondary-school students in the future of transport through hands-on digital skills and critical thinking activities to examine how autonomous vehicles might impact society.

During Techweek’18, the Transport Agency hosted 38 Year 10 students from Mount Roskill Grammar for ‘AutonoMate’, a one-day pilot programme centred on autonomous vehicles.

Mount Roskill Grammar students attending ‘AutonoMate’

Mount Roskill Grammar students compiling the code to operate an autonomous vehicle.

Students each took up a role you’d find in a software development team: project manager, software developer, programmer, tester, and more. Working collaboratively, each group of students was challenged to programme their ‘autonomous vehicle’ – a remote-control car chassis retrofitted with sensors and control boards, allowing the students to programme the cars using Arduino, an open source software and hardware package for interactive devices.

AutonoMate is all about letting students work with the context of autonomous vehicles at a time when society at large is responding to fast-moving changes in transport technology.

“The main thing is to give these students the feeling they’re part of the conversation about the future of transport,” said Luke Krieg, NZTA Innovation Zone Manager. “The infrastructure we’re building is really for them and they will pick it up and influence future developments in time.”

Fostering the future of New Zealand transport

Mount Roskill Grammar students

The University of Auckland software engineer ing student Fred Fogerty guiding students during the day.

Programmes like AutonoMate introduce and engage students in digital technologies in the context of real-world applications. There’s enormous opportunity for the New Zealand tech sector and economy to foster an interest in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) careers amongst students.

“For New Zealand, both in the transport context, and more generally, it’s great to have students who learn by doing, who are not afraid to get hands-on and who are not afraid of science or technology or maths,” says Krieg.

This programme is a two-way learning opportunity – as current and future transport users, gauging the students thoughts on how technology like autonomous vehicles might impact their lives helps grow the Transport Agency’s customer insights.

“There’s a lot of disruptive technology nowadays. We’re driving cars today and that’s going to be disrupted in the next 10 to 20 years, maybe,” says Renay Kippen, technology teacher at Mount Roskill Grammar.

One of the most insightful activities in the programme was a ‘postcards from the future’ exercise. After learning about the technology and engaging hands-on in programming their own autonomous vehicles, students were asked to consider what the possible applications of AVs might be. What problems could AVs solve for society? How might our lives be different – what are the pros and cons? The students used creative and critical thinking skills to examine the impacts of this emerging technology.

The big picture

AutonoMate

Mount Roskill Grammar student watches on as his team’s car uses sensors to follow a set course.

Murray MacDiarmid, technology teacher at Mount Roskill Grammar, considers the big picture behind getting students excited about STEM careers: “We’re getting them engaged and believing that they can think about big problems. Ultimately, it’s about how you can make a difference in the world and that you’re drawing on your skills to do it.”

AutonoMate was a one-day pilot programme to test and refine an educational resources kit the Transport Agency has developed. These resources will soon be available through the Education Portal, and educators are encouraged to utilise these and provide feedback.

Visit the Education Portal website: education.nzta.govt.nz(external link)

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