Submitted by University of Puget Sound

NASA astronaut Jack Fischer will be in the hot seat on the International Space Station on Friday, August 11. He will be under the scrutiny of dozens of American and Russian middle school children watching from Earth, as he referees a microgravity game of “program your robot to grab the most floating objects” in the finals of the international Zero Robotics tournament.

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18 students from Tacoma and Gig Harbor make up the “Puget Sounders” team. Photo credit: University of Puget Sound Access Programs

Among the faces watching the livestream at the Museum of Flight: 18 schoolchildren from Tacoma and Gig Harbor whose team beat out three regional rivals to face off on the big day against 12 other finalist teams from the United States and Russia.

The local group of seventh- and eighth-grade students are participants in University of Puget Sound’s Summer Academic Challenge, a science and math-based enrichment program run by the college’s Access Programs for underrepresented students from Tacoma Public Schools.

The annual Zero Robotics game on the space station is led by NASA and MIT Space Systems Laboratory, with School’s Out Washington coordinating the Washington state competition. The game challenges schoolchildren from across the country and overseas to design a robotics program to solve a problem of genuine interest to NASA and MIT.

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NASA’s colorful sphere-shaped robots or SPHERES. Photo credit: NASA/ISS

The “Puget Sounders” team from University of Puget Sound came first in the state by designing the best program to control NASA’s colorful sphere-shaped robots or SPHERES (Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites). Their program, in a real-life scenario, potentially could pick up spacecraft spare parts or broken satellite items that are floating in space and bring them to the space station.

The 13 finalist student teams will be watching their robots in action, via a livestream feed, in venues from Massachusetts to Alabama to California. The Puget Sounders team will view the tournament at 8:20 a.m. on August 11 from the Space Gallery of the Museum of Flight in Tukwila, just south of Seattle. You can watch it live on University of Puget Sound Access Programs’ Facebook page.

“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,” said Joseph Colón ’10, Puget Sound Access Programs coordinator. “They had to come up with a strategy for collecting ‘high-value’ objects floating in the station that would also give them the scope to defend their own bin of objects or to try to grab competitors’ objects.”

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The teams control their SPHERES via code they created. Photo credit: University of Puget Sound Access Programs

On the big day, each team’s computer code will be loaded on to computers on the space station. The team that scores the most points for collecting objects will win. All teams participating in the program receive trophies to recognize their work.

Amy Gerdes, the Access Programs teacher guiding the Puget Sounders, said the Zero Robotics’ experience in coding and its real-world application help prepare the students for studies and careers in the sciences, math, computer technology, and engineering.

“Win or lose, the code will be archived by Zero Robotics and potentially used in the future by space agencies on missions to Mars or for ongoing cleanup of Earth’s atmosphere,” she said. “That’s pretty special.”

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Astronaut Scott Kelley plays with the SPHERES on the International Space Station. Photo credit: NASA/ISS

WHAT:  The Zero Robotics competition finals, involving 13 student teams (12 in the U.S.; one in Russia) will be held on the International Space Station. There will be four Washington state teams, including the state winner, the Puget Sounders, watching the contest via a livestream feed. The media are invited.

WHEN:  Friday, August 11, 8:00 a.m.–11:00 a.m. Tournament starts at 8:20 a.m.

WHERE: Museum of Flight (Space Gallery), 9404 E. Marginal Way S., Seattle, WA 98108

The Puget Sounders team members: Adrianna Pettway, Aunya Crow, Gabriela Lizarraga, Gabrielle Mullen, Jasmine Chhang, Jasmine Jackson, Jenica Truong, Joseph Irish, Lavina Polk, Micah Long, Miguel Angel Davila, Mikyla Fowler, Monee Dubose, Nicholas Yeun, Quienten Miller, Quinton Pettison, Tyler Budd, and Yahbi Kaposi.

The Zero Robotics Middle School Summer Program provides students with a five-week curriculum introducing them to computer programming, robotics, and space engineering. It is provided through a partnership between the MIT Space Systems Lab, Innovation Learning Center, and Aurora Flight Sciences. It is sponsored by NASA, the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), and the Northrup Grumman Foundation.

University of Puget Sound’s Summer Academic Challenge is run by the college’s Access Programs, which promote academic excellence for middle and high school students, in partnership with Tacoma Public Schools. The Summer Academic Challenge is a tuition-free summer math and science enrichment program that helps underrepresented students prepare for their next academic year. The program is an integral component of University of Puget Sound’s commitment to diversity and its strategic goal to increase the enrollment of individuals from underrepresented minoritized groups, to improve structural diversity, and to promote students’ retention and success.

School’s Out Washington’s mission is to ensure all young people have safe places to learn and grow when not in school. The nonprofit group is dedicated to building community systems to support quality afterschool, youth development, and summer programs for Washington’s children and youth ages five through young adulthood.


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