Beyond the table

Exeter students feed their hunger for discovery with passion projects outside the classroom.

May 8, 2019
VERTEX team members work on the robot in the Design Lab.

Team VERTEX earned a spot at the robotics world championships in its first year of competition.

Not every inspiration occurs at the table.

Harkness works up an appetite for ideas and possibilities, for figuring out how things work and why things happen. That hunger for understanding continues to grow beyond the classroom door. Like a flame given oxygen, Harkness and its lessons spread.

Whether it’s inventors flocking to Design Lab during open hours or a blossoming poet filling her free blocks with verse, Exeter students are constantly exploring. Many of their biggest discoveries and brightest ideas are of their own making. Our fledgling robotics team tried-and-erred its way straight to the world championships. The collapse of a family beehive inspired a trio of seniors to study causes and seek solutions. Two members of the class of 2019 took advantage of the senior independent study program to pursue their arts in self-designed projects.

They represent a culture of invention and ingenuity at Exeter. Here are their stories.

Rookie robot team has all the right stuff

By Nicole Pellaton

“They are VERTEX!” shouts the ref in a red Hawaiian shirt as he announces this match of Rover Ruckus, the regional FIRST Tech Challenge event held in February. He points to three Exeter students wearing protective goggles, nervous smiles, and red T-shirts emblazoned with VERTEX and the lion rampant: Vincent Xiao ’22 and Joy Liu ’20 (robot drivers) and Neil Chowdhury ’22 (match coach). Whoops from the crowd of thousands resound through Southern New Hampshire University’s athletic complex as VERTEX’s partner for this match and their two opposing teams are introduced.

As the racing bugle sounds, the teams’ four robots, simulating lunar rovers, drop from their tethered parking spots on the red landing craft to start their three-minute navigation of the pitch. The rovers, with long metal extenders and heavy-duty wheels, are designed to pick up “minerals” (in reality, Wiffle balls and plastic cubes) and deposit them in designated spots. After 30 seconds of entirely autonomous driving, buzzers blare and the driver-led portion of the match begins.

Clutching an Xbox controller wired to an Android phone that communicates with a second Android on the rover, Xiao gives robot 15534 a burst of speed. Its intake pulls in two balls, maneuvers one into the robot’s carrying cabin and releases the second back to the “crater.” 15534 swiftly backs up 4 inches, extends a long ladderlike arm above the landing craft and tilts the ball onto the craft’s roof. It bounces off. Again 15534 tries, this time with a cube. It goes in, but to the wrong spot. Two more attempts and success. “Nice job!” intones the ref.

The VERTEX alliance has won the round.

“It’s the impact we make on the community. Diversity in STEM was really an issue we wanted to focus on.”
Penny Brant

Begun as a PEA club in September 2018, VERTEX walked away from Rover Ruckus with the prestigious Inspire award, given to the team that, in addition to being strong technically and creatively, is an ambassador for FIRST programs, showing graciousness on and off the pitch, and sharing knowledge, excitement and experience with other teams and the community. Judges commended the work on autonomous operation and the engineering notebook, as well as the extensive community outreach programming. VERTEX was also praised for its inclusiveness: members hail from around the world and half identify as female or nonbinary. The Inspire award guaranteed VERTEX a spot at the FIRST World Championship in late April, where 1,400 robot teams from more than 70 countries gathered. (See how the team did at worlds.)

Although they call themselves “rookies” — about half the VERTEX team had no previous robotics experience and seven are new to Exeter — they bring hours of teaching programming and robotics to peers, and hours more in self-taught skills. It clearly shows. The FIRST regional judges singled out the team’s work with open source image recognition software — the robot must be able to “see” where it is going and what to pick up — because the students had mastered the software and identified flaws in the algorithms.

But when you ask the students what really counts, it’s not the technology.

“It’s the impact we make on the community,” says Penny Brant ’20. “Diversity in STEM was really an issue we wanted to focus on.” Through presentations and interactive events, VERTEX showed community groups that robotics is fun and everyone can do it. Brant is most proud of STEM Day, a student-run event in January that gathered more than 100 Exonians and community members for presentations by Harvard and MIT researchers, a tech fair of student projects and participatory challenges.

“STEM Day was a revolution,” adds David Song ’21, the self-taught CAD guru who is widely credited with jump-starting the robotics team. The turnout and excitement, he explains, especially on a Sunday, showed the pent-up demand among students for opportunities to collaborate on STEM projects outside of the classroom.

Kai Lockwood ’21 remembers coming to Exeter as a prep and asking, “Where’s the robotics club?” A year later Lockwood, who identifies as nonbinary and uses the pronoun they, joined the fledgling FIRST robotics team as its electrical lead, happy to be working with their hands again, something they craved. Lockwood is fulfilled and inspired by the robotics demonstrations for local organizations including Girls Who Code, the YMCA, FIRST LEGO League, ESSO robotics club and Seacoast Outright, a LGBTQIA+ support group.

Team VERTEX earned a spot at the world championships in its first year of competition.

On a Wednesday afternoon in late February, a few weeks after the regional win, VERTEX members gather in the busy Design Lab on the third floor of Phelps Science Center.

Xiao, the mechanical captain, stands next to the table where 15534, currently shorn of many components, is undergoing major redesign for worlds. The table is strewn with colorful zip ties, wires, screws, gears, clamps and bands. Xiao works silently, and, as people approach the table, he connects. Two students have recently joined the project, and he talks to them about mechanical priorities. “If you use this, remember that you need to get the screws out of the way — they need to be in really tight,” he explains as he holds a metal fitting in the air.

Liu comes over to the table and picks out a part from the box labeled “Mech Kit.” She wonders aloud if it will adequately maintain rigidity if they use it to fix the intake. “The robot is never done,” Liu frequently points out in conversation. The team’s try/fail/regroup/try approach is in clear evidence today as she and Xiao discuss what has worked, what has not, and paths for moving forward. This openness to challenge and change has successfully survived several serious tests already, including an unexpected software breakdown during Rover Ruckus, and the disruptions to progress that occur every time the team disbands for school breaks.

Lockwood wanders in around 3 o’clock, cheeks still flush from swim practice. They immediately bend down to the table and get busy — hands confident and strong as they pull apart wires, then brace them on the robot with duct tape. Lockwood notices that a new part has arrived. Soon, Lockwood and Nico Gallo, the Design Lab coordinator and VERTEX adviser, are holding ends of the large blue coiled air hose, flexing it and talking about tensile strength and where points of resistance will occur.

Panda Atipunumphai ’20, a CAD specialist, is over by the window working on a project that is a direct offshoot of her robotics work. Although she doesn’t yet know it, in a few days she and her team will receive the Innovation award from LaunchX, an MIT entrepreneurship program, for their plan to reuse single-use plastics as 3D printing filament.

Song, tall and quiet, wanders fluidly from the robotics group to another table where an AI-driven recycling sorter is undergoing a final build for presentation at LaunchX. Recognized for his leadership and dedication at the state championships, Song is waiting to hear if he will make the FIRST Dean’s List at worlds, an honor given to only 10 students.

Liu has left the Design Lab, carrying a part that is not working as predicted. Suddenly, a question comes up and Xiao asks, “Where’s Joy?” There’s a ripple of disruption as team members query each other, across tables busy with activity, to see if anyone knows where she has gone. “There she is!” announces Xiao with relief as Liu returns a few minutes later. VERTEX gets back to preparing for worlds.

Creating buzz in the fight to save bees

By Debbie Kane

It’s a startling statistic: Approximately one in every three mouthfuls of food comes from crops pollinated by bees. But commercial honeybee colonies around the world are failing at an alarming rate, declining by 30 to 40 percent over a seven-year period in the United States alone.

Vinny Kurup ’19 hadn’t heard the buzz around honeybee die-off when he started fall term in Social Innovation, a senior elective. But three months of collaboration, many hours of research, one video and an oral presentation later, he has in-depth knowledge of how this impacts food sources worldwide. In January, Kurup and classmates Jenny Yang ’19 and Cooper Wolff ’19 unveiled their solution, BeeInnovative, at the New Hampshire Social Venture Innovation Challenge (SVIC). The trio captured first place in the competition’s high school track for their proposal to create a mobile application and monitoring device that alerts beekeepers of hive health issues. “I was a little nervous about the competition and didn’t know what to expect,” Wolff says, “but we were really prepared.”

That preparation is thanks, in part, to their teacher, Director of Service Learning Liz Reyes, and the way Social Innovation is structured. The course is designed to get students out of the classroom and into the community. “The students have to study root causes of problems in society, like environmental concerns, health care, refugee rights — issues that negatively impact well-being,” says Reyes. Students are challenged to understand issues by engaging one-on-one with stakeholders. “I ask them to partner with people in the field to develop solutions,” she says. The class breaks into teams during the course to study a specific problem and propose a potential solution. The culmination is the SVIC.

I was excited to see how my research could be applied in the real world.”
Jenny Yang

The BeeInnovative team came together around an issue that Yang was already studying: the failure of one of her family’s beehives. Last summer, she programmed a computer to identify hive-health problems by interpreting images collected from other beekeepers and disseminating her findings on social media. But she was eager to dig deeper into the problem. “I was excited to see how my research could be applied in the real world and figure out how this system could really look,” Yang says. “I knew there was still a long way to go.” The project also intrigued her classmates. “We’d heard about Jenny’s work with bees and knew we wanted to expand off her research,” Wolff says.

To get started, Wolff interviewed Exeter staffer Linda Safford P’12, P’14, a local beekeeper who explained the effects of mites on honeybees and how timely monitoring of hives could prevent their failure through early identification of disease. Combining this knowledge and additional research with Yang’s efforts, the students developed an early-warning solution designed to identify disease before it spreads and triggers a hive failure.

The BeeInnovative team proposes placing a small camera connected to a Raspberry Pi (a single-board computer) at the entrance of a hive to continuously monitor and record bee activity. The camera sends video footage of bees traveling in and out of the hive in real time to the Raspberry Pi, which uses machine learning technology to inspect the video frames for behavior or appearances that may be indicative of disease. The data is sent to the BeeInnovative mobile app so that beekeepers can monitor their hives’ status. Should an anomaly be detected, the app alerts the beekeeper, displays potential treatment methods and provides a listing of beekeepers within the app’s community.

A prototype of BeeInnovative’s app.

Yang’s strong STEM background and her knowledge of honeybees, Kurup’s public speaking and coding abilities, and Wolff ’s writing and interviewing experience were complementary skills during their project’s development phase. Yang worked on the project’s written summary; she and Kurup presented a two-minute oral overview to a panel of judges during the competition; and all of them worked on a three-minute video.

Based on positive feedback from the SVIC judges, Kurup, Wolff and Yang are continuing their research and creating a business plan for BeeInnovative. They’ve turned the project into an independent research course for their senior spring term. Using their skills in physics, computer science and electrical engineering, they’ll delve further into the project, building a mobile app as well as a prototype hive monitor. “There are so many variables we don’t know,” Kurup notes. “We have to make sure we’re using the right kind of camera, whether it’s recording the information we want, and if its relaying that information to the app.” They’re excited about the possibilities.

Support from Exeter students and staff has been key. “I didn’t envision the project coming this far when I started it last summer,” Yang admits. “The fact that I’ve been able to continuously work on it at Exeter with the support of the school, Mrs. Reyes, and my friends and teammates is really energizing.”

Kurup agrees. “Exonians are used to being challenged in a narrow sense but we also have the support of the school to take risks in fields we’re passionate about,” he says. “The truth is, I don’t think any of us would’ve been able to do this project outside the environment Exeter provides.”


Harkness for one: seniors hone solo projects

By Patrick Garrity

Kate Denny ’19 knots a salmon-pink apron around her waist, grabs a dish cloth and sops up an imaginary spill from an empty diner table. She complains about her manipulative mother, who, it just so happens, she murdered.

Moments later, she beseeches her husband, Agamemnon, to spare their daughter and not sacrifice her to the Greek gods.

In another moment, she sings at Don Quixote in a scolding alto to see her for who she really is, not a lady but a prostitute. “I am not any kind of lady!” she chides.

This shape-shifting performance, carried out on the stage of The David E. and Stacey L. Goel Center’s Actors Lab, is Denny’s senior independent study project on full display. For weeks, she worked to memorize six monologues and two songs from disparate sources, all with one commonality: They are the words of strong female characters. The show, presented three days before spring break, is Denny’s de facto final exam.

At an institution where collaboration is canon, the independent study program for seniors remains a popular outlet to go it alone. The goal of the program is to allow Exeter students the opportunity to explore areas of interest that fall outside traditional course descriptions. Seniors, with approval from the faculty, may design individual projects of comparable value and scope to those of an academic course. Each student keeps a faculty adviser updated on their progress but generally works independently throughout the term. The time and resources poured into projects often exceed those dedicated to many senior-level classes.

Recent projects have included writing and producing a bluegrass album, designing and conducting a Harkness class for adults on campus and constructing a 150-squarefoot tiny house on wheels. During winter term, eight students devised independent study projects ranging from Denny’s one-woman spectacular to Yasmina Abukhadra and Tony Ye’s exploration of ways to harness solar energy.

Ultimately the way you decide to create a character for yourself and create a persona is all up to you.”
Kate Denny

For Denny, a solo project comes naturally. Theater is a passion she hopes to make a career one day, and she sees the acting process as an independent study each time she tackles a role.

“I love Harkness. I think it works really well in a lot of subjects,” she says. “I love Harkness math. … I love it in history, I love it in English. I think it’s really important to get all of the different perspectives and opinions when talking about a subject.

“But in acting, you kind of have to analyze a piece for yourself. You can’t let other opinions influence what you think about a piece, you can’t let other influences tell you how to play a role. Obviously, a director is there to guide you along the way, but ultimately the way you decide to create a character for yourself and create a persona is all up to you.”

Denny worked with Theater and Dance Department Chair Rob Richards to choose the roles. She wanted variety — different eras, different ages, fictional and actual — as long as the voice was that of an inspirational female character. She called her project “Femme Play-Tale: Exploring Strong Female Leads in the Theater.”

A day student from Exeter, Denny juggled her regular course load, playing the Wicked Witch of the West in the Mainstage production of The Wizard of Oz and singing in Concert Choir, all while trying to organize and memorize the monologues. She then mapped out the order of a show that wound up being 38 minutes long.

Between each act, she gives the small audience a brief description of the character, the challenges the role presented and why she chose it. She closes the performance with a song from the Broadway hit Rent.

“The only thing to do is jump over the mooooon,” she sings.

Natalie Love’s independent study project also revolved around female characters. She chose six young women on campus — friends, dormmates, one of her younger sisters — to serve as the subjects of a series of portraits Love re-created using serigraphy, or silk-screening.

Unlike Denny’s personas, however, Love’s subjects did not have overt statements to make. Her inspiration came from studying essayist Leslie Jamison in a creative nonfiction class during fall term. Jamison, in her introduction to the collection Best American Essays 2017, laments that the only art worth making it seems in this charged era is “political with a capital P” — “a pointed commentary on mass shootings, a vocal critique of our current administration, a harsh op-ed about race relations.”

Love, a senior from Arlington, Virginia, has focused on having “deeper meaning” with her art projects in the past, but this time she wanted to zero in on the individual. “I just wanted to look at people up close, just as people,” she says, “not with any sort of agenda behind it or extra meaning, but that people in themselves, just being people, have meaning.”

Many seniors choose to focus on a calling for their independent study, a project that serves as a precursor to a college concentration. Love chose a hobby. She is an aspiring physicist and mathematician; she’ll study both at Brown. The printmaking project offered her a chance to step outside exploring electricity and magnetic fields in her Advanced Physics class and the geometry of polyhedra in her Math 690 course.

But Love insists her interests in science, math and art all go together.

“I don’t really believe in this whole right brain-left brain thing. Type A, Type B, whatever,” she says. “Because the thing is, there is a science in doing this kind of art.”

Nat Love’s serigraphy on display in Mayer Art Center.

She proceeds to explain how forcing ink through the tiny holes of a screen onto a canvas requires a scientific approach — and a weather report. “Like when you do the photo-emulsion, when you coat a screen, how long you let it rest will determine how long you have to cook it for, to harden the emulsion on to the screen. If I coated some screens a week ago, and today I’m going in to shoot the screens, you have to think about, is it a sunny day? Because if it’s sunny, it can change the chemistry of the emulsion.”

And as math and science seep into her art, art informs her science and math.

“For anything, creative thinking, creative problem-solving is really important,” she says. “And I think that doing the arts can help foster that creative-thinking spirit.”

I don’t really believe in this whole right brain-left brain thing. There is a science in doing this kind of art.”
Natalie Love

Love was drawn to the freedom of essentially being her own teacher — for one class, at least. Art Instructor Mary Claire Nemeth served as her adviser on the project, but as is typical in the independent study format, the oversight was mostly hands-off.

“I wanted that sort of trial and error, figuring it out,” she says. “I wanted to sit there and think, ‘What are the variables here, what can I adjust, and what effect will that have to solve the problems I’m faced with?’

“When you get out into the real world, you really are just accountable to yourself and your deadlines. And I set the deadlines for this project. … It’s nice to have that level of trust with a faculty member, where she’s like ‘You do you.’”

Editor's note: This article first appeared in the spring 2019 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.