High School Seniors Detour in Virtual Reality Before Graduation

High school students make an impression during virtual reality internship

Graduation season is in full swing and soon the class of 2018 will be venturing into the real world. But a select group of high school seniors recently took a detour into the world of virtual reality as part of a unique internship program with Dell’s product engineering team, and I had the honor of joining them for part of the journey.

boy working on a laptop

My interest in this program is twofold. First, I’m a father, and I’ve seen first-hand the benefits of investing in our youth. Second, I am passionate about encouraging young people in under-represented communities to get excited about and involved in STEM education. I’m active with the local chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) and serve the executive sponsor at Dell for the national NSBE organization. This has allowed me to contribute to the development of a diverse workplace and to give back to the community by encouraging the next generation of engineers.

A New Kind of Program

Internships are nothing new at Dell – we work with university undergraduate and graduate students all the time – but a recent challenge from our leadership to get more involved in STEM initiatives led my team to propose a program for high school students in the Pflugerville Independent School District, located near the Dell campus in Austin. We had no idea what to expect from a group of younger students, but their hard work and creative thinking literally blew us away (pun intended – read on to see why).

In all, 13 students took part in the paid program, meeting several days a week for six weeks with our engineers to create a virtual reality experience. The project sounds simple, but was actually quite complex: create a virtual world and have it generate real-world stimuli. In this case, the students designed a virtual room in which there is a fan. When you turn on the fan in the virtual room, it signals a real fan to blow air on you. The interns were divided into teams, with some working on hardware, others on art and graphics, and others on virtual reality programming.

group of people watching a man using a VR headset

Team Phoenix for the Win!

I had the honor of observing the teams as they presented their final projects to a group of Dell leaders earlier this month. While we are so proud of the fantastic work the three teams accomplished, Team Phoenix won first place by creating a project that clearly stood out from the rest. All three teams used Dell Visor VR headsets, Dell G5 Gaming laptops and a third-party microcontroller as the basis of their solution. The judging panel noted that Team Phoenix took things to the next level by incorporating other stimuli such as hot and cold air, as well as a clever use of animations within the virtual world that they created. The result was visually stimulating and scored high on all of the criteria (difficulty, creativity, artistry and final presentation). Each member of Team Phoenix received a Dell G5 Gaming laptop, but they were all winners in my book! Scroll down to hear what some of them had to say about the experience.

Special thanks to Sonny Quintanilla and the Dell Client Product Group – Software Engineering organization for guiding the students throughout the process, and to the Pflugerville ISD teachers and staff who partnered with us on this venture. And my sincerest congratulations to the winners and all the Pflugerville ISD students who participated. You all are leaps and bounds ahead of me at that age…and I thought I was pretty advanced! I know your parents and teachers are proud. As you graduate and contemplate your future in the real world, I hope you will seriously consider a career in science, technology, engineering or math. Whatever you choose, your future is bound to be bright.

group of students from Pflugerville ISD

In Their Own Words…

“It really helped that we were able to all work together despite what our backgrounds were.”

-Liandra Niyah

“I want to thank everyone who made this internship possible because I guarantee you this has been some of the best six weeks of my life. I loved working at Dell; it’s an amazing place.”

-Heather Brown

“I was always curious about virtual reality and had never experienced it before until this point. My first experience with VR was at Dell during a field trip, and I fell in love with it instantly. It was just such an immersive experience.”

-Roger Ellis

“Just to talk about how much this internship has fired me up, I’ve already started my own project. I’m so proud of my team and what we were able to achieve considering none of us really had any background in what we worked on.”

-Danny Link

“I feel like all of our interests were piqued throughout the internship.”

-Carter Doan

“Communication was really important in our success. At first we didn’t know each other, so we were working separately even though we were a team, and we didn’t realize the importance of communication and teamwork.”

-Nate Mekuria

About the Author: Ed Ward

Ed Ward is senior vice president of engineering for Dell’s Client Product Group. Ed leads a global team of engineers and technical professionals who design and develop Personal Computers, Workstations, Thin Clients, Platform Software, Data Security Software and IoT solutions for both commercial and consumer customers. He is a business leader as well as an engineer with a natural curiosity for how and why things work the way they do. He is a lifetime member of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), serves as the Dell executive representative on the NSBE Board of Corporate Affiliates, and is the executive sponsor for NSBE at Dell. Ed is also a board member of Dell’s Black Networking Alliance Employee Resource Group.