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GSSM Student Brennan Cain Pioneers a Team-Taught Robotics Class

April 5, 2017

For some people, self-driving cars are a thing of the future, but for Brennan Cain, a senior at the Governor’s School for Science & Mathematics (GSSM) in Hartsville, South Carolina, the future is now and autonomous vehicles are his reality.

At GSSM, a two-year residential high school and home to some of the Palmetto State’s best and brightest, Cain is working alongside his engineering instructor, Dr. Elaine Parshall, to teach Robotic Control Systems to a class of his peers.

This student and teacher co-taught class is unprecedented at GSSM and rare among other public boarding schools across the country.

Through GSSM’s 2016 Summer Program for Research Interns (SPRI), Cain had the opportunity to study high-speed autonomous vehicles for six weeks at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). When he returned to school in the fall, Cain was inspired to teach his peers what he had learned.

“I enjoyed my research at MIT, and when I came back, I started thinking about how I’d like to show others what I learned because it was fun for me,” Cain said.

What started out as a simple pipe dream soon became reality. 

Cain approached Parshall who saw the potential to create an interesting and unique class based on his summer research. With Parshall’s support, Cain pitched his idea to the school’s administration.

“This is a student who went to MIT for summer research and really advanced himself. He returned to his school community and wanted to share this knowledge with his fellow classmates,” said Danny Dorsel, Vice President for Academic Affairs at GSSM. “What he did was explore with me how to best do that…whether it be through a club activity or an interim course, and at the end of the day, along with Dr. Parshall, we decided that what would be most effective would be to teach it as a semester-long course.” 

Following a series of proposal drafts, the course was approved. Parshall, with help from Cain, submitted syllabi and course expectations which were then vetted by the curriculum committee. After a few revisions, the approval process was complete and Cain and Parshall were ready to pioneer their new team-taught course to the GSSM community. 

The class is based on robotics control systems, which are the basis of self-driving cars, but it also focuses more broadly on robotics in general. Building on his SPRI research, Cain has been teaching students in his class how best to program a robot to navigate efficiently using environmental stimuli including vision, range scans and an inertial measurement unit.

Cain is fluent in his research and able to share it with his fellow classmates – and even Dr. Parshall – with ease.

One of the perks of Cain teaching his peers is his ability to anticipate problems that might arise. Because he knows his peers and knows their coding tendencies, he’s able to resolve their individual issues with ease.

“I think it's helpful that Brennan knows all of our coding habits and what will throw us off,” said Hunter Damron, a GSSM senior and student in the class. “It helps, too, that he just recently learned the course material in the same way as us so he knows what he struggled with and where we might also struggle.”

But he couldn’t do it alone. During his lessons, Parshall is on hand to offer suggestions like slowing down to make the material more manageable. But when it comes to actually teaching, she says her input in minimal.

“Usually the thought processes just seem to flow seamlessly between the students as we work as a team in writing programs for the robot, working on a different part of the program for each new task,” said Parshall. “The students don't have to be told to do that, they just do it on their own. They're so eager to learn all the different aspects.”

Cain and Parshall hope the class will continue next year with a new student instructor - someone who is currently taking the class.

As for how his experience is going, Cain said he’s having fun teaching his fellow Govies.

“It’s just fun to teach. I like telling others about what I’m interested in."

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