Washington State Middle Schoolers’ Code Will Control Robots In Space

Aug 10, 2017

On Friday morning, about three dozen middle schoolers will gather at the Museum of Flight in Seattle to take part in an unusual competition. They’ll get to watch as an astronaut on the International Space Station controls robots using computer code the kids have developed.

The students are taking part in a competition developed by MIT called Zero Robotics. Four groups of kids in Tacoma, Seattle, Tukwila and Eatonville have been working this summer to develop computer codes to move robots around and pick up objects.

First, they tried out the code in a simulation game. An astronaut will now use the code to move actual spherical robots aboard the space station.

The kids will watch it live, said Shannon Robinson, bridge conference coordinator with School’s Out Washington, which is helping to coordinate the program.

“We’re going to project it on a screen and the astronaut is going to run each of these codes and they’re going to actually see the sphere on the TV that’s inside the international space station,” she said.

Astronaut Scott Kelly aboard the International Space Station with the robots known as SPHERES
Credit photo courtesy of NASA

The aim of the contest is to get middle-schoolers excited about science and math. They also get to work on real-life problems NASA faces, such as how to pick up pieces of broken satellites in space.

For Quienten Miller, who’s 13 and from Tacoma, it’s been a way to deepen his knowledge of programming and gain some other skills.

“I think one of the biggest things that improved for me is how to work with teammates because there were a lot of us and everyone wanted to do things and had different ideas, and it strengthened that skill for me,” Miller said.

He was part of a team based at the University of Puget Sound. It was part of the university’s Summer Academic Challenge, which aims to recruit kids from diverse backgrounds and prepare them in science and math.