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WA Youth Write Code to Program Robots in Space!

by Danielle Baer | | Posted under Afterschool and Summer News, School's Out News, STEM

Congratulations to the four summer programs in Seattle, Tukwila, Tacoma, and Eatonville who helped create code to go head-to-head against 13 other states and a Russian team as part of the Zero Robotics final competition.  Middle-school youth from the programs convened at the Museum of Flight to watch a live stream of their code in action as astronaut Jack Fischer refereed the competition live from space, controlling satellites aboard the International Space Station.

Students from Eatonville's Parents & Students in Action Summer Program

Zero Robotics, coordinated by School’s Out Washington here in Washington State, provides middle-school students the opportunity to work in teams to code and control Synchronized, Position, Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites (SPHERES).  The game/challenge is designed by MIT students and changes every year to reflect a current need/research area of NASA.  This year’s game, SPACE-S challenged teams to deploy a satellite positioning system to locate their assembly zone, retrieve broken satellite items, and place them in their zone for assembly above Mars.

During the five-week program, students worked collaboratively with program staff to learn physics, mathematics, and computer programming through interactive activities and hands-on experience programming their SPHERES satellite. Students spent much of the summer learning to write computer programs and formulating strategies for their SPHERES in anticipation of the final competition. The program engages students in innovative, complementary learning opportunities during the summer, and is designed to allow low-income youth, youth of color, and girls to see themselves in STEM careers and experience a summer “space camp” free of charge.

Museum of Flight Summer Program student and staff

As Joseph Colón, with the Puget Sounders summer program out of the University of Puget Sound explains in an article on the competition posted by King5:

"The kids got five weeks to train and experiment with a graphical simulator, which has on-screen elements that look rather like a puzzle, and that have their movements translated into computer code."

His colleague, Amy Gerdes who has headed up the summer program for the last eight years, explains in more detail in this King5 video what Zero Robotics is all about and the positive impact of the program on the youth involved this summer.

University of Puget Sound - Puget Sounders Summer Program who won first place in statewide competition

The program isn’t just about learning robotics, but also many of the other social and emotional skills necessary to thrive in the 21st century world such as innovation, problem-solving, and teamwork.  As Quientin Miller, one of the middle-school youth in the Puget Sounders program explains to reporter Ashley Gross with KNKX:

“I think one of the biggest things that improved for me is how to work with teammates because there were a lot of us and everyone wanted to do things and had different ideas, and it strengthened that skill for me.” 

Even though Washington did not come out on top in the final competition, the experience, skills, and knowledge learned will have an impact for years to come. As another Puget Sounders student Lavina Polk says, “I think the program is going to help me go to where I want in life.” She has now added computer programmer to possible jobs she’ll pursue after graduating.

"The true innovators of the future are the ones that know how to program computers, not just how to use them.” says Alvar Saenz-Otero, Director of the MIT Space Systems Laboratory.  “That is why Zero Robotics teaches programming starting in Middle School."  Zero Robotics is led by MIT's Space Systems Laboratory, which originally designed the SPHERES, with partners MIT, Aurora Flight Sciences and the Innovation Learning Center.  The Middle school competition is sponsored by the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), the Northrop Grumman Foundation, and NASA.

Media Coverage of 2017 Zero Robotics Final Competition

8/08/17 Found in Space: Zero Robotics Kids complete, The Suburban Times

8/10/17 Washington State Middle Schoolers’ Code Will Control Robots in Space, KNKX

8/11/17 Pierce County Kids Program NASA Robots for ISS Competition, King5 News


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