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Code Competition Lets Students Program Real Robots Aboard the International Space Station

On January 26, three teams of high school science students got to watch real robots they had programmed carry out their code aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

The three top teams were part of a group of 27 high school teams from across the United States who participated in this year's Zero Robotics competition. The competition lets high school students write software for a set of basketball sized satellites called SPHERES (Synchronized Position Hold Engage and Reorient Experimental Satellites.) The SPHERES work in a swarm, so students learned how to program a single robot and then how to make those robots work together as part of a team.
Designed to build skills in problem solving, design processes, and teamwork, the competition does not require students to have any previous programming skills. Teams begin with a tutorial on programming the robots, then design and test their solutions in a computer simulation.

Funded by NASA and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, The SPHERES project is the brainchild of astronaut Greg Chamitoff, who served as a flight engineer and science officer during ISS Expeditions 17 and 18. He said he wanted to give students an exciting, real world way to get involved with both science and space.

This year, the Zero Robotics competition had both a collaborative and competitive element. The top three teams had to work together to create the final code that would be tested on the ISS.

The winning triad called itself "Team Alliance Rocket." It included students from "Team Rocket" of River Hill High School in Maryland, "SPHEREZ of Influence" from Rockledge High School in Florida, and the robot enthusiast club Storming Robots from New Jersey.

"The students of Team Rocket learned to work as a team in an exciting real life experience solving a challenging problem involving strategy and analysis while combining their knowledge of computer programming, physics, and calculus," said Anne Contney, computer science teacher at River Hill High School. "They were introduced to careers in engineering, computer programming, and space science. Their mentors taught, challenged, and inspired them to become champions and achieve beyond their wildest dreams."

The competitive collaboration element was introduced by TopCoder, which specializes in using code competitions to solve large problems. They created a custom platform and Web interface for the students in the hopes of inspiring future scientists and engineers to think of space as a normal career option.

"This year's tournament involved two contradicting activities: competition and collaboration," said Alvar Saenz-Otero, lead scientist of the SPHERES project. "It was very exciting to see how teams developed strategies that helped them collaborate to gain the most points while maintaining a competitive advantage."

Students can sign up for the next free Zero Robotics competition this fall. All they need is a team of at least five students, one faculty mentor, one mentor with programming experience, and two Flash enabled computers with Internet access. Participation is free, but winning teams have to raise their own money to attend the live ISS event at MIT.

More information on the program and registration for next year's competition is available at zerorobotics.org.

About the Author

Chris-Rachael Oseland is a writer, consultant, and speaker soon to be based in Austin, TX.

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