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How Argo AI and the Pittsburgh Penguins Inspire Kids to Pursue STEAM

On the surface, you might not expect to find much in common between the five-time Stanley Cup-winning Pittsburgh Penguins professional hockey team and Argo AI, a leading self-driving technology company — other than the fact that they both call Pittsburgh home.

But look closer and you’ll find that both organizations rely heavily on STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) fields to achieve their organizational goals (pun intended). For the Penguins, this includes using technology and math to ensure the arena environment, equipment, and players are conditioned for optimal performance on and off the ice. And for Argo, STEAM skills play a foundational role in building, testing and deploying the company’s self-driving vehicle technology on public roads.

Now both organizations are teaming up to inspire kids to pursue STEAM in their classrooms, extracurricular activities, and hobbies outside of school — giving them a strong foundation for success in their future academic and professional careers. 

Argo partnered with the Pittsburgh Penguins Foundation, the hockey team’s philanthropic arm, to support the Penguins STEAM Lending Library, a first-of-its-kind program launched in 2015 that allows school districts and teachers in Allegheny County to borrow the latest in educational technology. Already, in the six years since the program’s founding, the Penguins Lending Library has reached over 400,000 students grade K-12. 

To further advance their combined mission of mentoring youth in STEAM, Argo and the Penguins hosted an assembly at Shaler Area Middle School, a public school in the greater Pittsburgh area, attended by over 500 students in grades seven and eight. 

The assembly included panelists from the Penguins Ice Operations and Business Intelligence teams, who related how the team uses STEAM across its departments. 

“When I was little, I dreamed of being a professional hockey player myself,” Brandon Radeke, Director of Ice Operations at the Pittsburgh Penguins, told the students. “Now I get to be a part of the team in a different way, using the skills I’ve learned in STEAM.”

Some of the ways the Penguins use math and science in their daily operations include gathering data from sensors below the ice to measure its thickness and temperature, deploying math equations to sharpen players’ skates to a precise angle, and adjusting the “stick flex” of their hockey sticks. 

When it comes to training and conditioning their players, the Penguins also depend fundamentally on math and science. The organization keeps detailed statistics on each player on and off the rink, measuring strength, energy levels, nutrition and performance over time. That way, players can see their progress and use the data to further train and improve in areas specific to their needs. 

Argo employees joined as well to share how they use math and science across the organization, from designing and testing the self-driving software and hardware to a ride-hail app, programs for storing data from the vehicles, to building an application programming interface that lets external partners securely plug into Argo’s cloud-based autonomous vehicle fleet management system, ArgoWatch.

“We use STEAM every day when testing our self-driving vehicles, including some of the concepts you’re learning right now, like equations for speed and motion,” Argo Integration and Test Engineer Matt Puchalski said, before introducing the students to a live demonstration of lidar, the light imaging, detection, and ranging sensor that helps visualize objects 360-degrees all around self-driving vehicles. 

The lidar sensor, a small cylinder connected to a laptop, used lasers to visualize the entire auditorium in a 3D point cloud, a constellation of blue and green dots that outlined the students and their seats onto a projection screen at the back of the stage, eliciting murmurs of excitement and interest from the crowd. 

Beth Ballard, an Argo Hardware Engineering Manager and Ryan Schiffour, an Argo Autonomous Vehicle Systems Test Manager, discussed how they used STEAM in their respective roles.

For Ballard, this means using math and mechanical engineering to ensure Argo’s self-driving sensors and vehicle components work together properly. 

Lidar is but one of the many sensors found mounted on Argo self-driving cars — they also sport a variety of cameras, radar sensors, even audio microphones for detecting emergency vehicles. All of these sensors need to be individually tested, installed correctly on the vehicle, and continuously evaluated both individually and as a unified whole part of the self-driving system, as they go about collecting data from the world around them — much like how the Penguins measure both the performance of individual players and how they perform together as a team. 

“It’s fun to see the excitement and it’s fun to see students in this space of life when they’re really growing and learning and coming into these things for the first time,” said Ballard after the assembly concluded.

Schiffour, who coaches Argo Test Specialists on how to operate the company’s autonomous test vehicles and record their observations during their rides, noted his background was originally in marketing, not traditionally considered a science or tech-focused role. 

But he said this prior experience in a wholly different field made it easier for him to describe STEAM concepts to his colleagues at Argo and to others outside of the company. In his current role, he uses math to help keep track of the number of different Argo test vehicles and what each one is assigned to do, as well for keeping track of the number and speed of other vehicles, bicyclists, and pedestrians that surround them on the road. 

The students got one more opportunity to walk around the Argo self-driving test vehicle and take photos before heading back to classes. Several exclaimed how excited they were to see it up close, and noted they had seen Argo test vehicles driving on Pittsburgh public roads. 

“It looks very complex and incredibly difficult to build,” said one eighth grader as she admired the Argo test vehicle.

“If someone had vision problems, this would be great,” one student remarked. 

“It actually looks even cooler up close,” said another. 

By giving Shaler Area Middle School students a firsthand look and explanation of how new technology is helping advance two separate industries — professional hockey and transportation — the Penguins and Argo demonstrated the broad impact of STEAM on our world, and the broad range of occupations open to individuals with diverse skill sets. 

“STEAM is a way to impact the world,” said Shaler Area Middle School Principal Eric Stennett, a former science teacher and U.S. military veteran, “It’s not just for people who are interested in science. It’s in athletics, human resources, writers, businesspeople, accountants…we want our students to see that there are all sorts of careers open to them in STEAM, no matter what they are interested in.”

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