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MPS Students Spent Their Summer Thinking about Space

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Montclair students sit on a wall holding letters that spell out SPHEROBOTICSThe team.

Students from the Montclair Public Schools were the first in New Jersey to participate in the Middle School ZeroRobotics, an international programming competition run by MIT and NASA. 

A group of Montclair middle school students with diverse skills and experiences spent five weeks this summer at Montclair High School preparing for the competition.  They were taught the basics of physics, math and coding and much more… teamwork, patience, tolerance, resilience and the courage to try, fail and try again.

The ZeroRobotics competition imagines robot SPHERES (Synchronized Position Hold Engage and Reorient Experimental Satellites) inside the International Space Station, 250 miles above Earth.  The students were given programming challenges to make the SPHERES complete different tasks.  This year’s competition required the SPHERES to find satellite parts and collect and deliver them to a build zone.  To make it even more challenging, another team was writing code to do the same thing with the same pieces, at the same time. 

Montclair’s team, SPHERobotics, wrote a program that won their regional competition.  The other teams in their region spent the next two weeks collaborating to make the SPHERobotics code even better in preparation for the finals. 

On August 11, the members of the SPHERobotics team and their families traveled to MIT to watch the finals with several other teams from Connecticut to Massachusetts.  The regional tournament was simulated at MIT, but the finals were performed on the International Space Station and broadcast to the world to watch live.  (See the image below.) The teams even had the opportunity to interact with astronaut Jack Fischer on the space station during the competition.

Astronaut Jack Fischer talks to MIT from the space station.

SPHERobotics won their first match in the first round.  “I don’t know if the kids were more excited about winning or getting to see their program uploaded and run by astronauts on the ISS,” said Bradford teacher Jerry Liddy, who ran the program (Daniel Taylor, Buzz Aldrin Middle School’s STEM coordinator helped to coordinate).  Unfortunately, the next match did not go so well for SPHERobotics, but the team enjoyed watching the final rounds. 

Between rounds, the students got to meet astronaut Catherine Coleman who flew to space twice on the shuttle Columbia and returned to space one last time to spend 180 days on the ISS.  “The kids got to ask her just about anything they could think of… even how you go to the bathroom in space,” said Liddy. “Later, she brought in a person she ran into in the hallway and had the students guess what he did for a living.  Their guesses ranged from student to Starbucks barista. It turned out to be Warren “Woody” Hoburg, a professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT, who was leaving the following week for a new career: out of 18,000 applicants, Hoburg was chosen to be one of 12 people selected for the next NASA astronaut class.”  

“The entire experience was priceless for our Montclair students.”    

Updated: 10/24/2017