Nine local high school students traveled to Massachusetts Institute of Technology on Monday to compete in the ZERO Robotics SPHERES Challenge, a national robotics competition.
The actual competition, however, took place inside the International Space Station with astronaut Don Pettit running the games. On a large screen in a lecture hall at MIT, the teams watched Pettit set up the satellites and run the programs they had spent months configuring.
The 54 teams that made it to the final round of competition wrote programming code to maneuver bowling ball-like satellites in an asteroid mining game, said Osbourn Park High School teacher and robotics coach James Gillespie.
“It’s an amazing opportunity for them,” Gillespie said. “They’re using tricks they wouldn’t have learned in regular classes. They’re also applying all this math they’ve been learning to a real-life situation.”
The Prince William team and the alliance teams with which it collaborated — a new twist on the competition — did not place in the top three at MIT. Still, the experience was a positive one.
“It’s definitely helped learning code,” said senior Benny Peake, who plans to study game design and programming in college.
The team, called SuperNOVA and led by Gillespie and mentor Karl Becker, included students Michael Chang, Roxanne Jassawalla, James Jung, Benny Peake, Piper Sigrest and Victoria Vanderbach from Osbourn Park High School; Wei Low and Oscar McCullough from Gar-Field High School; and Joe Mehr from Freedom High School.
This was SuperNOVA’s second year competing. Last year was a pilot program in which the team was invited to participate after submitting a winning proposal, Becker said. They placed third in the nation.
“This year, they’ve changed the rules a bit,” Roxanna Jassawalla, a sophomore, said.
After more than four months of preparation and competing in preliminary rounds, including 2-D and 3-D simulations, SuperNOVA headed to the elimination rounds at MIT in sixth place. For this round of competition, they were required to join forces with two other lower-ranked teams — a new rule.
SuperNOVA picked Absolute ZERO from Bonners Ferry, Idaho, and Alpha Tech from Staten Island.
Working with students from other states and a different time zone added a new set of challenges for the Prince William group.
“It’s really student-driven how they subdivided the work,” Becker said.
Before heading for Cambridge, Mass., the Prince William team met regularly at Osbourn Park and collaborated with their remote teammates online using programs such as Skype.
“It’s going to be tough,” Gillespie told the team at the time. “Our strategy was very different, but I’m confident that it’s a solid strategy.”For McCullough, the competition was “extremely rewarding and extremely fun.”
“These are probably some of the best friends I’ve made in any activity I’ve done.” he said.