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MIT-Designed Competition Sends Student-Programmed Robots Into Space

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By guest blogger Alyssa Morones

A programming competition that invites students to program robots that work in zero gravity is expanding, with teams of middle schoolers working together this summer in nine states. The best-designed robots will eventually be tested on the International Space Station. Along the way, the hope is that these youths will be inspired to pursue further learning and even careers in the STEM fields. 

The Zero Robotics competition was created in 2009 by the MIT Space Systems Laboratory and astronaut Greg Chamitoff as a way to open up the International Space Station to students as a venue for learning. With the latest expansion, the program is expected to reach 1,600 students on 90 different teams. Last summer, 26 teams with 450 middle schoolers took part.

A separate high school program, which involves students in the United States and other nations, has seen growth as well, from just two teams with 13 students during the 2009 pilot program to 2,000 students last fall. 

"The middle school expansion is pretty important," said Alvar Zaenz-Otero, the co-founder of Zero Robotics. "While we want to keep students interested in STEM during high school, we want to capture them in middle school."

Zero Robotics adopted its name because of the unique nature of the competition—it takes place in zero gravity. Students are challenged to create code that controls robotic SPHERES, Synchronized Position Hold Engage and Reorient Experimental Satellites (but they're also literally spherical), in the International Space Station, shuttled into space specifically for this purpose. The SPHERES are programmed by the students to perform a variety of tasks. The team whose sphere completes all of the tasks first wins. 

In the process, students must also learn about and apply knowledge from math, science, technology, and engineering. Because they are working with robots that will be running in zero gravity, students have to account for things such as velocity and gravity in their problem-solving, and then work those concepts into the program they create. 

It's free for teams, each composed of at least five students. Both high school and middle school teams compete in separate tournaments—high schoolers in the fall, from September to December, and middle schoolers over the course of five weeks during the summer. Zero Robotics has created a curriculum which it provides to summer camp teachers with a complete description of what to do every day.

"We want to tell teachers that it's not that hard to get students or themselves interested in programming," said Zaenz-Otero. "A lot of them are worried about mentoring in a programming competition if they haven't done programming, but we have resources for them. I'm hoping that we're making it easy." 

Encouraging students to learn code has garnered recent attention lately, and not just from MIT. Last year, a campaign for Computer Science Education Week sought to get 10 million K-12 students to spend an hour learning how to code.

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