Sidharth Anantha: Future Aerospace Engineer

*This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.*

I’m Sidharth Anantha, I’m 16 years old. I’m going into 11th grade and I’m from Lexington Massachusetts.

So when did you start coding?

I started coding in 7th grade.

How did you get into it?

I did a small Arduino class and I was trying to work with creating a small, portable weather station so that you can basically, simply find the weather at your specific location rather than looking at a weather station that’s far away. To make that I realized I needed to learn computer science. So I started learning how to use Arduino. After that I started taking classes at KTBYTE the following year and I started building up my experience through that.

Then what other activities do you do besides computer science?

I play violin, and I’m interested in Econ as well. On my schools Econ team. I’m also very interested in aviation, so I did an internship over the summer with MIT Aeroastro.

Why do you enjoy those areas?

For my outside interests, I just find them very interesting. I’ve always enjoyed aerospace engineering and been interested in planes in general. In Econ, I just recently started learning about the 2008 financial crisis and that triggered my interest – which led me to pursue Econ and learn more.

I think computer science, definitely, it’s a big part of what I do. I especially like it because it’s a lot of math and its science. It’s the intersection of math and science. So two things that I love, you basically combine them together, and you get CS.

So you’re saying that you’re not choosing to focus in computer science, computer science is more like a tool for you to be able to dabble in these different area?

Right, I think especially as the world is changing, the world is changing every single day. But especially in 20 years from now when people my age enter the job market, every single field is going to involve computer science. Computer science is going to be the backbone to achieving these things.

Even economics is going to be based in computer science. Aerospace is going to be based in computer science. Everything is just going to grow, especially in specific fields such as machine learning and AI. So it’s definitely a  tool I think every one needs to understand and know how to use.

How did you realize that computer science also touches upon Economics?

I don’t know, I think it was just learning and looking at different examples. I thought all the data that is involved in here, all the data analysis can be powered through Python programs or even maybe Java. I can just tell you’re going to use computer science to figure out what stocks to invest in, where to place your money, where to take loans from. I realize you can use computer science as another tool to achieve that. Especially in Aerospace engineering as well, where you can make autonomous vehicles.

What kind of organizations, activities, or competitions have you participated in relating to Comp Science?

I’ve done the national invention convention entrepreneurship exposition. I think I said that right. I’ve haven’t really done USACO, instead I focused on NICEE. I’ve also participated in the National Economics challenge and the State Science Fair, which was the same project as NICEE.

For science fairs do you feel like there’s a formula to it now? Since you’ve done it so often? Do you feel like you’ve got the hang of it?

This is my first year doing it actually. NICEE and Science Fair are definitely two different things. Science Fair is really based on just a scientific method and trying to discover something new. There’s not much engineering that’s really applied to it, or inventing, but I know for example NICEE, is all about just innovation and finding new solutions. I think that’s kind of a bit more interesting when you can actually build something and create something.

Is there a part of the NICEE method of presenting that is very unique? How would you plan for that?

It’s really dependent on that you need to convey the most amount of information out in the shortest time possible. Within our group, every week we would have everyone go up and just without any script, without having anything in front of them, have to say it from memory.

Once you can just do it completely by memory and you have the flow, it’s going to be so easy to do it. You have to convey your problem and your solution. You have to talk about the practicality behind it. You have to say the cost, why it’s important, why people will use it. The hardest part is you have to get all this information out really quickly while still keeping the listener interested and not just zone out.

I think that’s specific about NICEE that you get there, rather than in the Science Fair. Because in the Science Fair you can talk for 20 minutes and they won’t cut you off. in NICEE they’ll put a timer and you have like three minutes. It’s definitely a lot more pressure, but I feel like that’s better. Because in the end the judge doesn’t really care what type of steel you use. I think learning how to present is really a big part about the inventing process.

You need to know how to sell it,  because there are people who can create brilliant things but don’t know how to communicate its advantages that well. We try to make sure the students here can do both.

How did you learn the communications skills?

That’s a good question. I’m a very talkative person. I’m not shy with doing that. I think it’s just a lot of practice. That one pitch that I’ve been doing, I can say it all from memory because I’ve done it so many times again and again and again. That’s what I told everyone. I said in the plane, the plane is two hours to Detroit. Get in the plane and just keep practicing in your mind. Close your eyes and do it again and again and again and then you’ll memorize. I said don’t memorize it word for word, memorize the ideas and then they will come together.

Are there students that start off really shy but they’re able to become…

Yes, there were students who will go up and say ‘My name is this and this is my project…’, we’re just like ‘enthusiasm, enthusiasm!’. In the end they’ll be like ‘Hello! Nice to meet you, my name is this’. They give a firm handshake.

Why did you want to start the robotics club? You have experience having students improve in that way before, but after doing it you were like ‘this is actually pretty cool’, what made you want to start?

So Suyue (KTBYTE Admin) actually sent an email out asking if there was any one who wanted to tutor someone in robotics. I just thought that’s cool, I’ll do it. I went there and I thought if I want to do this, I want to make sure that it’s good. So let’s make an actual class about this.

At first, I wanted to use Lego Mindstorms, but I thought Arduino might be more relevant, because it’s the new big thing. I got introduced to Arduino by taking a class. Once you learn the basics, there’s nothing you can really do after to advance in a curriculum. Instead, you have to learn through exploration, and there are a ton of resources and forums online that you can use.

Which are the classes you’ve set up?

[In beginner class], we teach the very basics – the beginning of everything. In intermediate, we think, ‘okay, let’s make them do more advanced stuff’. Students take it to the next level here, and they have to work independently. TAs and instructors are at their disposal. For example, if we ask them to build an LED, we won’t tell them how to do it, instead they have to figure it out for themselves. There are more quizzes, and homework every week.

The students that are motivated do the best. In advanced, it’s all up to the student to make their own project. The more motivated they are, the better their project will be.

Is advanced invite only?

Yes, it’s a very rigorous so you have to be selective. We pick the students that are going to go out there and create stuff on their own. They are very motivated, and each week they always show us new progress on their projects. I’m like, “When did you have time to build this?”

Why NICEE?

I chose NICEE specifically because the values that they promote there – it is so different from a science fair. It is a very binary competition, you have to demonstrate your solution to your problem, and you are asked to be highly experimental. It’s figuring out the optimal solution to solve a problem. Technology is always changing, and that’s the beauty behind it, you have the ability to keep growing with your product. In NICEE, you can build whatever you want, since any solution is an invention for a problem.

It doesn’t have to be hardware?

No it doesn’t have to be hardware.

That’s generally is what’s out there. We wanted to push Arduino, because we thought ‘Guys, you put computers on this, they’ll be blown away’. So we try to push [Arduinos]. Not to say that everyone who uses computers as a product aren’t great. There are really incredible projects out there. There’s this one student who made this laminated keyboard that basically clips onto an iPad and it has braille on it so a blind person is able to text on an iPad. Someone else created, it was like a trash collector that sits on the water and it just floats around and uses solar panels to just go and scoop up garbage that’s sitting in the ocean. There’s just these small ideas. This one person created a toothbrush that had toothpaste in it and you just squeeze it and toothpaste comes out.

Would you ever want to be a teacher? After College?

A Professor maybe, with different projects you can work on.

Sure, you can work a few years and eventually you have so much knowledge in the area that you want to share with people.

I definitely want to give back and help people. One of my favorite things is when you can see students understand a concept and execute it – and you see their passion grow. One of our instructors, Jonathan, told me that he felt that robotics, and the work I did really changed his life. That was an amazing feeling, to know that I’ve given something to someone else. He told me he wanted to be an inventor, and that nearly brought me to tears; I didn’t know how to react. I feel once someone has found their passion and what they want to do, that’s the best feeling to have. We’ve helped give that to them.

That’s a gift. Some people live their whole life and they don’t know.

I feel the fact that they know it at such a young age, it’s like they know what they want to do. I just love planes since I was like two. Whenever my memory started working, I just loved planes from there. When I was five years old I decided I’m going to build planes.

You like flying planes or you like just the engineering? Do you like being in it?

Everything. If I am in an airport for a layover and the flight is delayed by 10 hours, I’d be like nice!

How have you combined your interest of CS and entrepreneurship? We talked a lot about robotics, but what about CS?

In a way, when we created our program, everyone made these inventions that combined building these complex algorithms and models with entrepreneurship. We have to think about marketing, and  the audience, and how we’re going to sell it. We have to ask ourselves, “What’s the cost of the materials? How do we overcome this obstacle? What is the best solution?” We will meet constraints, and were able to use CS to overcome that. So I do think inventions is really where these two fields come together.

Are the students faster at picking up robotics if they have programming backgrounds?

I think so! Robotics is very hardware based, so the components you have to know is very basic. We may have touched arrays once and work with a few functions, but we haven’t touched classes. Instead, you call functions with your main loop. If you know computer science it will definitely help you use more complex algorithms.

All the projects that I won and went to nationals were all done using very complex algorithms, such as creating a rover on a city grid, and using GPS (array court) and try to find best way to get to point A to point B.

I think I saw that. That was Jonathan and Harry? I saw the vehicle in a grid.

Assuming this is like a cityscape and they were trying to integrate GPS into it. We connected the GPS location, I was like you’re not going to be able to do that. Good luck with that. Just create an [array] for now. I mean they had a GPS working and they showed it off and the judges were like ‘Alright then!’.

What KTBYTE classes have you taken recently?

I took CS91 last year, but I didn’t really complete much in the USACO. It was super busy, and I felt like it was USACO one weekend, a bio project due on monday… I’ll wait until the next one… and I just keep pushing it off.

What about, is there a class you’ve taken here that you feel like has helped with the trajectory that you’re going?

I think maybe, CS92. It’s a lot of problem solving, rather than just the regular CS01 class where you’re just doing basic questions. It’s like write an [array] that prints all the even [devalues] out. Actual problem solving. Because then it actually causes you to actually remember what you’ve learned before and really apply it to what you’re doing. That’s kind of how we shaped the curriculum for this. We thought you should apply what you’re learning, rather than just learning it for the sake of learning.

I realized that you guys are also teaching the students how to learn and how to ask questions. To seek out information.

Yes, we do something really mean called cold calling. We’re just sitting there like ‘Does anyone know the answer?’. ‘Ben, what is the answer to this thing?’. He’s like what? Then we have to explain it. I think after the first few days they kind of start being like okay we need to pay attention.

That’s important. It’s like a life skill to be able to seek out information on your own.

Especially we kind of do that rigorous testing to see who is motivated. Who can we trust to put them in a room and they’re going to get their work done and not play video games. They’re going to go home and they’re actually going to do their work at home, who do we trust to do that? That’s kind of what we do in intermediate.

In your team that went to NICEE, there’s only one girl?

Yes.

How do you think that you would motivate girls to be more interested in robotics?

That’s a good question. I’m not entirely sure how they do that. I feel like just CS in general. Generally, it’s more male oriented. But I think definitely in the more recent classes, the newer and advanced class I think it’s probably a good 50 to 50, or maybe 40 to 60 ratio. It’s a much more steady ratio. I think in the beginning we were kind of recruiting from the people who took CS classes here. So that ratio would kind of be shown there. But now that it’s more advertised, I think definitely more girls are trying to go out and try to do that. But I was really hoping, Katerina didn’t win at nationals but she won two awards at regionals and we try to really promote that and be like, “look what Katerina has done!” We really try to promote her work.

Do you feel that the projects that some girls are very different from the projects that guys make?

In terms of complexities they’re both really good. All projects.

Let’s talk about soft skills. You talk about being to sell your idea, being able to work on your presentation skills. How about like teamwork?

Yes, teamwork is a really big part of it. There are some kids that would just block everyone out, put on their headphones and just kind of get the work done. I feel like that’s only useful when you know what you need to do. But when you hit that road block and you can’t figure it out, other people can figure it out too. I think that’s when collaboration is really important. Even the way we sit at the tables, we move the tables into groups so that people are facing each other, so when they’re doing something and they get a rule book and they’re looking at the computer

like this and they look up and see the person in front of them, they’re more inclined to talk to them and ask them questions about how to do it. You have to keep trying and trying. You don’t know when the big break is going to come.  You just have to be patient.

How do you think that people can continue with persisting with something that is really challenging and then keep getting road blocks? 

How to get people to get past road blocks?

Persist in general.

Yes, we really try to make sure people are optimistic. Especially in advanced class.  We always say keep your final goal in mind. Because then if they know where they want to go, they will push through the road block in the final solution.

We can get to the last question to kind of conclude it. So your future paths both in and after college, what do you want to do in college? What college do you want to go to? After college even? If you’ve thought that far. 

I definitely want to study Aerospace engineering in College.

Do they have Aerospace engineering for Undergrad?

Yes, they do have Undergrad. But I know MIT…that’s going to be hard.

Persistence!

I’ll try.

What about for the nearer future? The next two years?

What’s the plan for the next two years? I think just grow this as big as possible and just expand it so that we can change more students lives and they can change other people’s lives. That’s my end goal.

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