By Jeff Wilkin
Ricky Cui is already walking his career path.
Cui, a 15-year-old sophomore at Niskayuna High School, is into electronics and computers.
He made the vocation part of his vacation this summer.
Cui spent four weeks at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Beaver Works Summer Institute. The program in suburban Boston annually offers high school students from around the United States a chance to learn about emerging technologies.
Academic and industry researchers, engineers and entrepreneurs became teachers. Topics included advanced robotics, artificial intelligence, self-driving cars and technologies for understanding and repairing the brain, and a mission to Mars, among others.
Cui said his mother, Aiqin Jiang, heard about the Beaver Works opportunity. Cui sent in a resume detailing current and past projects and was selected for participation — one of the 198 students from 105 U.S. schools.
“I was very excited,” Cui said during an interview in the dining room of his Niskayuna home. “I was also nervous because everybody else there was quite a bit older than me. It’s mostly a senior thing.”
Cui was assigned to a “CubeSat” program, installing infrared cameras on a small cube and using the cube to gather weather information such as earth temperatures and cloud heights.
“It was all just weather data,” Cui said. “It was more of a proof of concept because a big organization like NASA, they build these huge billion dollar satellites to just measure temperatures and stuff on the Earth.”
Cui said he liked the MIT campus, located along the Cambridge side of the Charles River. The place seemed small, he said, compared to its larger surroundings.
“That’s probably a good thing, because I get lost easily,” Cui said.
He did not become a fan of the cafeteria food. But he ate up all the science details he could.
“We had seminars every single day,” Cui said. “It was pretty great meeting some very influential people. We had people coming in from companies like Lockheed Martin and BAE,
kind of like a defense systems company.”
Cui, who has built an automated, cellphone-operated system to open his home’s garage door and is currently working on an automated system for lawn watering, has been interested in science and electronics since middle school. When his mother gave him the book “Make: Electronics,” he began exploring the field.
“I just provided whatever he wanted,” Jiang said. “I’ve tried to give him opportunities, I’ve tried to help him out.”
Cui said he learned new things in Cambridge.
“It taught me lots of people skills,” he said. “Our class was pretty small compared to other ones. It was a pretty complicated problem since it was space, so everything was under a very tight constraint. We’d work together a lot and, during the time we had to design everything, everyone got their own jobs and we’d try to work on everything together.
“I think the hardest thing,” Cui added, “was learning the orbital mechanics. I was in ‘CubeSat,’ so the stuff goes into space and we had to learn how space works. And space is kind of weird compared to everything here.”
Cui has also worked in 3-D printing and designed a light-spangled replica of a sword used in the video game “Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.” He hopes to return to Beaver Works next summer, to participate in programs that are generally reserved for older students.
“I’m only a sophomore, the seniors take priority of what they want,” Cui said. “It makes sense; I was OK with it.”
Someday, Cui expects to work on designs in future technology. He can’t wait for the years ahead.
“I’m excited,” he said.