Most teenagers are sound asleep at 3:00 a.m. on a Monday morning, but not the 17 Haverhill Robotics students, scheduled to attend an early morning field trip to MIT in Cambridge on January 25th. They had an important appointment with the International Space Station and astronauts Scott Kelly (USA) and Mikhail Kornienko (Russia).
Students in Haverhill Robotics at Haverhill High School have been meeting six hours a week since October to work on a world-wide challenge, sponsored by NASA, MIT, and the European Space Agency. In the Zero Robotics competition, students use simulation software to program a spherical robot to meet designated challenges by moving in specific ways in “zero” gravity. If a team advances in the competition, they collaborate with two other successful teams in Alliances, communicating by email and Skype to devise code that will instruct their robot to garner the most points.
Haverhill began the Zero Robotics challenge last fall competing with 171 teams. After several rounds of scrimmages, 123 of these teams were eliminated. Of the six teams from Massachusetts that participated initially, only Haverhill survived to participate in an Alliance. Haverhill secured a place as a finalist in one of 16 Alliances, made up of 48 teams, in groups of three. About half the finalists were from the United States, and half were from Europe, with one team from Australia.
In a series of elimination rounds, astronauts Scott Kelly and Mikhail Kornienko ran the students’ code on a pair of robots in zero gravity. The robots are about the size of soccer balls, one blue and one orange. The students watch both a live feed from the ISS and a computer-generated simulation. Although Haverhill’s Alliance, Kuhl-Wall-Hill did not advance further, their score did fall at about the mid-point of the scores of all the competing Alliances from around the world. Haverhill’s Alliance partners, including team Wall-E from Sicily, traveled to MIT for the event.
Astronaut Mike Fincke attended the MIT gathering to meet with students and tell them about his 20 year career with NASA and his experiences in space travel. Colonel Fincke is a graduate of MIT with Masters degrees from Stanford and the University of Houston. He has spent a total of 381 days in orbit and logged 48 hours of EVA time on nine spacewalks.
Haverhill Robotics is an activity of the Access 21 and Discovery Club after-school programs, funded by 21st Century Community Learning Centers grants from the MA Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, with additional support from the Haverhill Education Foundation. Cliff Ashbrook coaches the high school program. Twenty-eight students at the high school and twelve students at Consentino Middle School participate in Robotics. Two students in Haverhill Robotics at the high school teach Robotics in the Consentino program.