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Students wrap up Zero Robotics workshop focused on coding, programming and space

SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: NICOLE THILL-PACHECO  - Katelyn Leonard, center, shows her mom, Teresa Leonard, the computer program she learned how to use during the Zero Robotics summer workshop. Around the room, other students show parents and other family members some of the projects they completed during the program and discussed what they learned. A summer program that focused on engineering in space gave many St. Helens Middle School students an opportunity to get out of the house, explore their interests and be active — and also learn about potential careers.

A group of 17 students took part in Zero Robotics, a program offered for the first time in the school district this summer.

The five-week summer workshop was geared toward teaching middle-schoolers about computer programing, coding languages, engineering, space, problem-solving and more. The program is hosted by the MIT Space Systems Laboratory and also receives support from NASA, the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), and the Northrup Grumman Foundation.

Throughout the five weeks, students learned about coding and various topics related to space engineering in order to program a robot to perform a series of actions. The robots are called SPHERES, which stands for "Synchronized Position, Hold, Engage and Reorient Experimental Satellites," and are used on the International Space Station. The students were challenged to write code to direct the SPHERES to act autonomously to latch onto a piece of debris using a small hook and haul it away.

While students used simulation models on computers during the workshop, at the end of the summer teams in Oregon took part in a statewide competition to determine who wrote the best code to complete the SPHERES challenge. The top state winners were then entered into a national competition.

The St. Helens team, which the members dubbed "The St. Helens Vortex," took third place overall in the state. They competed against seven other teams in Oregon.

Barbara Wright, a science teacher at the middle school and the summer program coordinator, said she was proud of the work the students completed, the amount they learned, and how well they performed for being coding novices.

"Our goal as a team was to not finish last place. We knew we were just beginners and did not have the experience and expertise of some of the other teams," Wright noted in an email. "I was proud that we produced code and got it submitted by the deadline."

Last week, the students traveled to OMSI to watch a video-stream of astronauts on the International Space Station inputting code developed by the winning teams in each state into the SPHERES to determine the national competition winner.

"The competition was held within the JEM (Japanese Experimental Module) of the space station. Astronaut and U.S. Army Emergency room physician Dr. Andrew 'Drew' Morgan joined veteran Russian Cosmonaut Aleksander Skvortsov in conducting the trials using code submitted from teams all over the world," Wright stated in an email after the event. "It was truly a memorable experience for our kids from St. Helens and for myself as well."

In addition to teaching students about coding and engineering concepts, the students learned more about careers and professions in STEM, NASA and the achievements of female scientists and astronauts, and also got to visit Oregon State University.

Katelyn Leonard, one of the students in the program, said she enjoyed getting to learn more about how her interests could be applied to a possible career path.

"I've really enjoyed (learning about) more opportunities, I guess," Leonard said. "Just learning that I can actually do this when I grow up. I wouldn't mind working in STEM jobs because that seems really cool."

Students Kendra and Kaela Monahan also said they enjoyed learning about coding and enjoyed seeing how programming can be used to control a device to perform a series of tasks.

Bridget Kishpaugh and Liam Huntzinger, two others in the workshop, said it was exciting and fun to create something original that will do exactly what you tell it to do.

"(You're) making a creation of your own," Kishpaugh said. "You can tell it what to do and it just does it."

Student Theron Nelson enjoyed working with others to accomplish a singular goal during the workshop.

"My favorite part has been the teamwork we've had," Nelson said. "We'd all have one project to code and we'd all add on little bits to make it one giant, working SPHERE."

Last week, during the final week of the program, students welcomed their invited families to an open house to show them what they have been working on and what they learned throughout the summer.

Parents, grandparents and others who attended were impressed with the students' work and said they appreciated how the program worked and its appeal to the students. Jeff Nelson, Theron's dad, said he saw his son's interests blossom over the summer.

"He had some reservations about doing it as compared to doing his normal summer stuff, and as his interests got perked, he really started to get involved," Jeff Nelson said.

"I just had a good time, so I'll probably remember it for a while," Theron Nelson said.

Zero Robotics at St. Helens Middle School

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