Cornell Cup engineers, Afghan Dreamers collab on astromech droid
Shabnam Noorzai is 15 years old and will not be subdued – neither by feeling compelled to leave her home country, Afghanistan, when the Taliban retook power in 2021, nor by people who believe science is not for girls. “War cannot be an obstacle to our progress and the Taliban do not define who an Afghan woman is,” she says. “I do not want to show you a picture of war. I want to show you a picture of progress.”
This spring, Noorzai has the opportunity to do exactly that as part of a collaboration between Systems Engineering’s Cornell Cup Robotics (CCR) project team and the Afghan Dreamers all-girls high school robotics team, of which she is a member. With eight teammates, she found refuge in Doha, Qatar, after the U.S. military withdrew from Afghanistan last year (others remained or moved to different countries). There the girls have been living and going to school far from their families.
“We heard the story of the Afghan Dreamers and recognized that here’s a group of people we are perhaps uniquely able to help,” says David Schneider, Cornell’s director of M.Eng. studies in Systems Engineering and CCR faculty advisor. The student team of up to 90 members creates innovative robotics projects and shares a common mission – to inspire STEM education in underrepresented populations – with the Digital Citizen Fund, the Afghan Dreamers’ parent organization founded by Afghan business woman Roya Mahboob.
The Cornell team invited the Dreamers to come up with a feature for one of CCR’s current projects, C1C0. This R2-D2-inspired astromech droid will serve as a “spokesdroid” for CCR – and now the Afghan Dreamers – at major public events. C1C0, pronounced ‘keeko,’ already reads, responds to users' questions, navigates around workspaces, and uses its two arms to open doors and pick up objects.
The Dreamers are working to add a CNC drawing machine that will create giveaways to event guests to help share their story. CCR has been showcased at NASA Kennedy Space Center, Walt Disney World, and the Obama White House and will make an appearance in San Jose this October at TechCon, a conference by CCR’s primary sponsor, Arm.
“The goal is that through this work not only will all students have a greater learning experience, but in spreading the Dreamers’ story, they will do their part towards meeting’s Ezra Cornell’s and President Martha Pollack’s mission to ‘Do the greatest good.’”
Schneider taught the Afghan girls fundamental systems engineering design principles, such as how to evaluate customers’ and stakeholders’ needs and evaluate potential solutions along objective metrics. Even he was surprised by their results. “They took what they learned and developed an idea that we didn't think of, along with a good argument as to why it would work,” he says. “They’re a pretty industrious group.” (A previous cohort of Afghan Dreamers made international headlines by building ventilators from used auto parts during COVID.)
For the past three months, Schneider and about a dozen CCR students have been mentoring the Afghan team through weekly Zoom meetings and a virtual discussion board. “I think it’s been a great educational experience for everybody involved,” Schneider says. For the Dreamers it has been about learning how to break down the design process into efficient steps. “The challenging part of building the robot was about the complexity of its design and assembling its parts together in such a manner that the robot would be functional,” says 17-year-old Ayda Haydarpour, who does programming for the team’s robots.
The Cornell student mentors, for their part, are getting a taste of what working with an outside consulting group may look like. As “interface champions” they are responsible for critical design interfaces between C1C0 and the Dreamers’ feature and practice meeting such challenges as language differences, multiple time zones, spotty internet connections, and seeing the girls in Doha come down with COVID. “It really ups the real-world nature of the overall project for our students, because they’re going to have to deal with teams from around the globe in real life,” Schneider says.
Dakota Thomas ’22, a mechanical engineering major and CCR primary team lead, has been impressed with the Dreamers. “I love discussing with them which of their ideas may result in the best outcome, because I see they are working like true engineers just focused on solving problems,” he says.
When the C1C0 debuts its new CNC drawing arm at TechCon this fall, Schneider and the CCR students hope visitors will be just as captivated and inspired by the story and tenacity of Afghan Dreamers such as 16-year-old Florence Pouya, who says: “During this journey I’ve learned that it does not matter how many problems we face on the way to achieve our goals, we should not consider them as something impossible, and in the most difficult situations we can always try to find the optimal solution.”