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Local middle-schoolers to participate in International Space Station robotics competition

Local middle-schoolers to participate in International Space Station robotics competition

By On Your Side Newsroom. CREATED Aug 11, 2014

Eighteen Treasure Valley middle school students will gather at Boise State University on Friday, Aug. 15, to watch their work in action on the International Space Station -- when the free-flying robots that they programmed compete in the Zero Robotics Middle School Competition.

Students will watch the bowling ball-sized robots called SPHERES (which is an acronym for synchronized position, hold, engage, reorient experimental satellites) as NASA astronaut and Boise State Professor of the Practice Steve Swanson provides real-time commentary on the competition in a live transmission from space.

The local students will join about 530 other middle school students gathered at several universities and NASA centers across the country for the finals day competition.

The public is invited to the event from 7:45 a.m.to 12:15 p.m. in the Skaggs Hall of Learning, Micron Business and Economics Building.

According to BSU, Idaho is one of nine states and the District of Columbia participating in the Zero Robotics 2014 Middle School Summer Program that introduces students to computer programming and space. During the five-week program, students in Alabama, California, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Massachusetts, Ohio, Texas, Maryland and Washington, D.C., learned physics, mathematics and computer programming in order to write code for maneuvering the SPHERES.

SPHERES have been performing research inside the International Space Station since 2006. Each has its own power, propulsion, computer, navigation equipment, and physical and electrical connections for hardware and sensors for various experiments.

At the Aug. 15 event, the student teams will maneuver their SPHERES to either shoot simulated lasers or use a “gravity tug” method to alter the path of a virtual asteroid that is heading toward Earth.

“This is fantastic,” said Barbara Morgan, distinguished educator in residence at Boise State and former NASA astronaut. “This is the second year that Boise State has helped Idaho students to learn computer programming and to work with astronauts on the International Space Station.”

Boise State students Nilab Mohammad Mousa (BS, computer science,’14) and physics undergraduate Marina Autina will emcee the event. They serve as leaders and mentors for the Zero Robotics program in Idaho, assisting the students and teachers. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has named Mousa a SPHERES expert.

In addition to the Treasure Valley students, Meridian School District teachers Andrea Baerwald and Kellie Taylor of Galileo STEM Academy and Lynnea Shafter of Barbara Morgan STEM Academy are participating in the program. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Boise State University and Discover Technology are leading Idaho’s partnership in the Zero Robotics program. Zero Robotics is led by MIT in partnership with Massachusetts Afterschool Partnership, Top Coder and Aurora Flight Sciences. The program is sponsored by NASA, DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) and CASIS (Center for the Advancement of Science in Space). The goal is to build critical engineering skills for students, such as problem solving, design-thought process, operations training and teamwork. The project also seeks to increase student interest in STEM.