Students build instant messaging system -- instantly

Jan. 26, 2006 5:27 p.m.
Materials Science Day

Below left: Princeton graduate student Afusat Dirisu (right) guided the students through the process, along with several other graduate students and volunteers from MentorPower, a program that serves economically disadvantaged students.

Photos: Denise Applewhite

Nineteen high school students from Trenton and Lawrence arrived on the Princeton campus Thursday with a mission: to assemble cutting-edge optics devices under a tight deadline so that by the end of the day they could instant message each other using computers connected by nothing more than two beams of light.

The students worked in the electrical engineering lab in the basement of the Engineering Quadrangle as part of Materials Science Day, an event sponsored by the Princeton Institute for the Science and Technology of Materials and the Princeton Center for Complex Materials.

The day was an abridged version of a lab session that Dan Wasserman, a postdoctoral fellow, and Claire Gmachl, an associate professor of electrical engineering, used last semester in “Hands-on Optical Engineering,” an innovative course in optics that they developed for Princeton students not majoring in science or engineering.

“There is not that much of a knowledge gap between a non-science Princeton student and a high school student who is interested in science,” said Wasserman. “The main challenge was time.” The high school students had to squeeze four weeks of college-course material into less than six hours. 

Materials Science Day

The students had to build software using a visual programming language called Labview and then assemble a circuit board. After much testing and troubleshooting, they were able to send typed messages from one computer to another wirelessly, with the help of devices that transmitted and received pulses of light emitted from a laser diode. The technology is similar to that used in fiber-optic cables except that the light signals are transmitted through the air rather than through cables.

After he built his software, Nyle Ross, a sophomore at Lawrence High School, watched an oscilloscope visually translate the letters of his first name into the 0s and 1s of computer language as he typed them into the computer keyboard.

“Pretty cool,” observed Noel Powell, a classmate of Ross’ at Lawrence.

Erik Gonzalez, Michael Davila and Leeshua Pica, all of Trenton Central High School, built their circuit board as a team. When they were done Pica typed a test message in pink (to match her pink shirt and pink sequined slippers): “Hello!!:),” she wrote. “Michael’s taller than Leeshua and Erik wants 2 b famous.”

The students were guided in their efforts by volunteers from MentorPower, a program that serves economically disadvantaged students. Also assisting the students were Princeton graduate students Anthony Hoffman, Afusat Dirisu, Guillaume Sabouret, Fatima Toor and Weiwei Zheng and postgraduate fellow Sylvia Smullin.

“It’s invaluable for these kids to see the science behind the technology that they use every day,” said Tony Jordan, senior project manager of MentorPower.

The students have been invited back to the Princeton campus March 21 to participate in the Science and Engineering Expo, which 1,000 middle school students are expected to attend. That is when the students will really demonstrate their newly acquired skills and knowledge, according to Daniel Steinberg, educational outreach director at the Princeton Institute for the Science and Technology of Materials. “We are expecting them to teach the middle school students what they learned today,” he said.