Students gear up for national robotics competition

Emily Hicks, a Galileo STEM Academy seventh-grader, is learning to program a Synchronized Position Hold Engage and Reorient Experimental Satellite (SPHERES) – a bowling ball-sized spherical satellite used inside the International Space Station.

Emily Hicks
Emily Hicks, right, working on a team rocket project.

“It’s fun to program robots and I find it’s very interesting that robots can do much more than humans,” Hicks said. “I’m learning so much about math and science that I never thought I would learn about.”

Hicks and 44 other students from Idaho are participating in Zero Robotics Summer Camp – a five-week summer STEM programming competition.

“Students are creating a computer code that will make the SPHERES move on the ISS. We are working with Massachusetts Institute of Technology – using their software to compete against other states nationally,” said Bill Shearer, Zero Robotics teacher.

In August, the Idaho team which includes students and their teachers from North Idaho STEM Charter Academy (Rathdrum), Woodland Middle School (Coeur D’alene) and Meridian Middle School (West Ada) will come together at Boise State University for a live national tournament on board the International Space Station hosted by NASA and MIT.

After several phases of virtual competition in an environment that mimics the real SPHERES, finalists are selected to compete in a live championship. An astronaut will conduct the championship competition in microgravity, using a live broadcast.

“The Idaho team came in fourth place last year nationally, we are excited to see what happens this year,” Shearer said.

The camp began five years ago in the Boston area. Boise State University, in partnership with Discover Technology, helped bring the middle school program to Idaho two years ago. Partners include the Micron Foundation and the Idaho AfterSchool Network.

“We are thrilled that Idaho participates in this inspiring program and with more sites each year,” said Barbara Morgan, former NASA Astronaut and Distinguished Educator in Residence at Boise State University. “For many of the students, this will be the first time they are ever exposed to coding or even a summer day camp. This is great for them and for the continued growth of STEM education opportunities across Idaho.”