What am I doing this summer? I’m helping middle school students teach NASA scientists. Seriously.
This is all part of the Zero Robotics program, a five-week intensive coding workshop for middle school students. ZR is made possible through a partnership with the Idaho Afterschool Network, Idaho STEM Action Center, MIT, NASA, and several other organizations. More locally, The Library and Sandpoint Middle School have partnered to bring this amazing program to North Idaho. We are joined this year by ten other Idaho teams, plus teams from thirteen other states. Even Russia is getting in on the fun with two pilot teams.
Over the course of the program, students will learn how to code robots aboard the International Space Station. Known as SPHERES (Synchronized Position Hold Engage Reorient Experimental Satellites), these soccer ball-sized bots will be used in a game. The better teams do meeting the objectives of the game, the higher they will progress in the competition. The game is also based on real problems that NASA is trying to solve. NASA will use the data from the game to help find solutions.
A CHALLENGE TO BUILD SKILLS
Zero Robotics is a coding challenge. We are teaching students who may not have any coding experience how to program a robot floating in space with astronauts in just five weeks. This is no easy task for the students or us mentors. Students will learn about vectors, coordinates, zero gravity, fuel consumption, coding (of course), and much more. Along the way, our Zero Robotics kids will also gain valuable transferable skills, such as problem-solving, cooperation, communication, logic, attention to detail, and perseverance.
A COMPETITION WITH A TWIST
Zero Robotics is also a competition, but it has a very unusual model: “competitors become collaborators.” This means even though you’re competing against someone today, you will need to work together tomorrow. Our team does both simultaneously, helping each other solve a problem just before running their program against it.
At the end of Week 4, we will have a state-wide competition. (Last year, we tied for second.) The winning team will have their code shared with the rest of the state. We must then all come together as one to create the best possible code to represent Idaho at Finals. Over 100 students will be discussing and troubleshooting together across Idaho to achieve this feat in just one week.
THE FINALS COMPETITION
This is where all of the students' hard work really shines. In mid-August, they will get to watch their code working in real time aboard the International Space Station with astronauts and cosmonauts serving as referees!
WHERE WE ARE NOW
We are over halfway through this incredible program, and I am sure we will do well. The kids have fought through some difficult problems, showing great stick-to-itiveness. Our practice code is almost ready for submission. The results will teach us a lot about our code’s strengths and weaknesses so we can improve for the State competition.
Morgan Gariepy, Young Adult Services Librarian