IAESTE Interns Help Carnegie Mellon Lab Win National Public Safety Challenge

The benefits of international exchange extend way beyond building strong cultural ties. In the science and technology industry, there are exceptional benefits of hosting experienced international interns.

Senior Systems Scientist Dr. Yang Cai is a strong advocate for hosting international interns. He has been welcoming International Association for the Exchange of Students for Technical Experience (IAESTE) participants into his lab at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) for the past decade.

Dr. Cai demonstrates a new tool at the Visual Intelligence Studio.

Dr. Cai is a senior systems scientist at Carnegie Mellon University’s CyLab and director of its Visual Intelligence Studio. His broad research interests span machine intelligence, video analytics, interactive visualization of big data, biomorphic algorithms, medical imaging systems, and visual privacy algorithms.

Dr. Cai is also a fervent supporter of the importance of global collaboration. In the past year, he has been working with two IAESTE interns: Florian Alber of Italy and Sean Hackett of Ireland. At the Visual Intelligence Studio, they explored a new type of interface that could serve as a safer communication tool for firefighters.

This collaboration recently helped CMU win the National Institute of Standards and Technology Haptic Interfaces for Public Safety Challenge and award for its prototype being “most commercially viable.”

Using Science to Keep Firefighters Safe

Florian and Sean traveled to Denver, Colorado for live demos in a fire fighting training facility. This practical experience allowed them to understand how firefighters navigate unfamiliar paths through burned buildings filled with smoke and noise.

Being at the training facility helped Florian and Sean join hands with Dr. Cai to develop technology that successfully improves firefighter’s safety and efficiency of in the most challenging and hazardous environments.

Sean, Florian, and Professor Cai wearing different prototype firefighter helmets.

Dr. Cai, Florian, and Sean named their prototype the “Haptic Helmet.” The helmet communicates directions to a firefighter through a buzz sent to different sides of their head. This buzz is sent through a remote controller and indicates them where and how to move.

According to Dr. Cai, the winning factor of this prototype was its simple design and low cost. Florian added that that the judges appreciated their intuitiveness in the design and Sean believed that their prototype made it easy to explain the commands to firefighters.

This win, however, represented much more than a successful design. It’s a testament to what happens when talent from around the world joins hands to find solutions for a challenge.

Bringing International Talent through the IAESTE Program

Dr. Cai has been working with IAESTE interns for the past 10 years. Every year, he brings in interns from different parts of the world to work on various projects. He commented that most of the talent comes from European technical universities:

“These universities have great reputation and training and their graduates help us in building diverse teams that can be productive and deliver the work we want. Students and participants from western Europe have a brilliant work ethic.”

Together, they produce research papers and work on innovative solutions, adding value to the lab. “Some European interns have great writing style in addition to other talents and that is monumental when it comes to writing and editing research papers for conferences, which is great additional help.”

This year, Dr. Cai worked on a research paper on “Indo-Navigation and Fire Fighters Activity Recognition” with Sean Hackett. Sean helped greatly in editing and polishing it and making it for presentation at conferences.

The winning haptic hamlet.

A More Innovative Lab

IAESTE interns don’t just add value to research papers. They work at the lab like other members, contribute to software development, build hardware systems, and make the lab more innovative.

It was this innovation that Florian and Sean brought to the Visual Intelligence Studio that helped Dr. Cai win the NIST Haptic Interface for Public Safety Challenge. The contest assessed the use of virtual reality environments as a development tool for creating safety technologies.

Sean and Florian, two IAESTE participants, work on drone projects for public safety.

Overcoming Obstacles of an International Internship

Besides the current COVID-19 crisis and the particular challenges this has brought, Dr. Cai feels like there are few challenges in hosting IAESTE interns. “Most of the interns are Masters’s students and they are very professional and well acquainted with our standards and work. They learn quickly and deliver well.”

Sean and Florian explore the Grand Canyon.

According to Sean, it wasn’t hard settling into the new environment thanks to the immense support offered at the lab. “Of course it’s challenging to be away from friends, family, and home. It takes a little while for the initial adjustment of the processes and procedures but once that is done, it’s pretty smooth sailing.”

Florian, who hails from northern Italy, compared the adjustment period to that of any new role and job. “It was a change of scenery and culture, but work-wise, I just felt like being in a new workplace. I have worked in Europe before and my experience there helped me adjust to the workplace here. ”

Providing a Nurturing Environment For Interns

Dr. Cai worked in business before joining academia, which makes him a great mentor for IAESTE interns. Not only does he provide excellent mentorship, but a nurturing environment to work in throughout the year.

Dr. Cai brings two or three international interns every year to work with him.

Dr. Cai believes that engineers should be presented with real-life challenges from the beginning of their careers so they can look for practical solutions. “We encourage engineers to find simple solutions that work in the real world.”

He believes a nurturing environment is one where engineers have the independence to research and find their own solutions but also the confidence to reach out if they need help.

“Although I give them instructions to guide and get them started, I also encourage them to use their own knowledge and experiment because in the real world there is no textbook that tells you what to do and engineers have to work on a lot of problem-solving”.

A Year of Learning

The exchange year marks a year of great learning and exposure not only for both Florian and Sean. Florian pointed out that labs in Europe don’t have a lot of externally sponsored projects as in the United States, which provides plenty of opportunities to experiment, practice, and learn.

Sean, who comes with an Electrical Engineering background from Northern Ireland, understands the immense learning opportunities. “The experience of interacting with real-life firefighters and working independently on solutions has been very interesting for me.”

Sean and Florian at the firefighter training center in Denver for NIST Haptic Challenge.

But the year has been more than professional growth and learning; it has given Sean and Florian an opportunity to witness American culture and interact with people from diverse backgrounds, participate in social activities and enjoy American adventure and sports.

Although still in the United States working with Dr. Cai, they look forward to going back home to share their diverse experience with another part of the world.