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Math, robots and ‘toy-cons’ — one teen’s Summer internship

Posted on September 18, 2019 by Sonoma Valley Sun

This summer, Sonoma Valley High School (SVHS) senior Lily Raaka was selected by Sonoma State University to take part in their prestigious Summer High School Internship Program, or SHIP. She was one of 15 chosen county-wide from a pool of 75 applicants, and the only one from SVHS. The Sun’s Sarah Ford checked in with her about her summer project.

 Tell me about the application process. 

 When you apply, with a recommendation from a math or science teacher, there is a list of possible internships – in Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Astronomy, and my choice, Computer Science. I worked with Dr. Anamary Leal, whose interests center around human-computer interaction. My specific research project focused on investigating the creative affordances of a video game designed for the Nintendo Switch called Nintendo Labo.

 Creative affordances? 

Basically that means the creative limitations. And also how extendable it is – whether it’s flexible and adaptable. How creative can you be with it? Nintendo Labo comes with pre-shaped cardboard pieces that you can combine with the Nintendo Switch console to create various devices, called toy-cons – these could be vehicles, blasters, musical keyboards, and so on. They use the computer screen, or virtual reality. I wondered whether, instead, kids could adapt everyday items from around the house to create toy-cons.

 So what did you discover?

I found that kids could, and did, come up with their own creations using things they had on hand, with a program called Toy-Con Garage. I saw hundreds of really inventive toy-cons online. Nintendo Labo is sort of camouflaged as a crafting opportunity for young kids to interact with physical toys they create, while also interacting with the computer. It’s really open to all different kinds of kids – whether crafty, artsy, or STEM-oriented. 

So you had a busy summer!

Yes! I worked full time all summer, and I did finish my research. I drafted a paper on my project, and it might be published at a Human Computer Interaction, or HCI, conference. My mentor’s idea is that, as the school year progresses, undergraduate and graduate students will help her conduct further research on this topic, and expand the project using all of the findings.

Did you have a favorite toy-con?

The most impressive to me was made by a boy who programmed regular motorbike handles to control his electric wheelchair. I can see that there could be all kinds of applications that could really help people. I have a younger brother who has autism and am very engaged in the special needs community, so the aspect of accessibility really interested me.

Why did you choose computer science for your internship?

I‘ve always loved computer science and robotics type projects. In middle school I took part in Lego robotics competitions, and I have been involved in running the summer robotics program at St. Francis School for two years, using Lego EV3 robotics kits. I’ve just always been interested in programmable devices.

Anything else you’d like to add about the experience?

As a student whose true passion is mathematics, this internship set a great foundation for my pursuit of advanced math in college. It also makes me excited to continue inspiring young kids to get involved with robotics and programming.

Lily is in the high school’s Engineering Academy, is on the tennis and track teams, and co-founded the Including Special Friends Club to help connect SVHS mainstream students with Special Day class students. She is the Student Representative on the Sonoma Valley Special Education Advisory Council.

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