A few months ago Mohamed Abdelgawad was another seventh-grader at West Intermediate School in Mount Pleasant, Michigan.
Today, the 12-year-old is participating in ground-floor research at Central Michigan University.
Mohamed and four other Michigan students are creating a "smart city," a place in which cars, buildings, buses, hospitals — even trash bins — talk to each other via computers.
And just how cutting edge is this research? For starters, smart cities are a mere concept. They have yet to exist.
The other students are Bryce Dangler, 17, a Clare High School senior; Jaden Gavenda, 16, a junior at Ashley High School; Aiden Judge, 15, a Shepherd High School sophomore; and Zach Nelson, 18, a senior at Alma High School.
The students are putting in 20-hour weeks for 12 weeks at CMU's Engineering and Technology Building.
It's a new effort CMU officials call the Pre-College Summer Scholars program. A $49,818 grant from the National Science Foundation funds it.
Shortage of engineers
Kumar Yelamarthi, a College of Science and Engineering faculty member who sought the grant and now oversees the program, said the mission was sparked by the fact that CMU couldn't crank out its highly sought engineering grads quick enough for the Michigan industries hungry for them.
One reason, Yelamarthi said, was the low number of high school seniors academically prepared and motivated to pursue engineering degrees at CMU and other institutions around the state. It's a trend in STEM education that's played out across the country.
His pitch to the NSF: Get students in the high schools — and even in the middle schools — fired up about engineering.
And what better way to accomplish that than to immerse the most eager of them into research in a university setting and then having them share the experiences at their home schools in the fall?
Yelamarthi submitted his proposal in early February and secured the grant. After a one-day orientation, the students began their work on June 20.
Challenging young minds
The concept of smart cities is pretty cool. For example, Yelamarthi said a car could brake for an object in the road and warn the vehicle behind it. Trash bins could notify waste collection companies that they're full, allowing workers to skip the empty ones and save time.
For their smart cities, the students are using Legos and tiny Raspberry Pi computers. CMU engineering students and faculty members are ready to help out.
One afternoon, Zach sat in front of a computer monitor with Lego bits spread everywhere. His task was to build Minestorm robots that lift objects off the ground, hold them in the air and set them down.
"I'm building all of the different models of it," Zach said.
Aiden and Bryce were working on different facets of a vacuum project. They're also in the early stages of adding cameras to a spherical robot.
"I'm getting my hands on the engineering aspect of it, doing some programming and learning a lot of new things," said Bryce, who plans to be mechanical engineer.
The students also are developing small autonomous, or "driverless," cars.
"We're trying to research on how communication works between different smart systems," Yelamarthi said.
Jaden said he's enjoying the program, adding, "It's given me opportunities I haven't had in the past."
Teachers benefit, too
And when it's all over, the students will return to their home schools and assist their teachers.
"They'll be serving as role models for their peers," Yelamarthi said.
In fact, teachers are working alongside the students. They're participating in CMU's Research Experience for Teachers program, a six-week effort in its second summer. The NSF funds that, too.
Jennifer Bole, an algebra teacher at Arthur Hill High School in Saginaw, Michigan, came into the program with no engineering experience. Now, she's glad she's here.
"I'm learning a lot of things that I can bring back into my classroom," Bole said while working on a small driverless car. "Hopefully I can let my students see that what they're learning in their math classroom actually does have applications in the real world."