By DEVIN HEILMAN
COEUR d’ALENE — Idaho middle-schoolers don't shoot for the moon.
They shoot for the best way to relocate humans to Mars using satellite positioning systems, computer coding and sheer ingenuity.
And their hard work has produced stellar results. Astronauts aboard the International Space Station selected Idaho as the West Coast champion of the 2017 Zero Robotics Middle School Summer Program Finals.
"All the kids are winners. How many kids can say, 'I sent code up to the International Space Station?'" said Idaho AfterSchool Network summer associate Scott Anderson, who helped coordinate the finals event. "But it was a little extra sweet to be the co-champions, of course."
About 20 robotics students from the Coeur d'Alene, Lakeland and Lake Pend Oreille school districts gathered in Molstead Library at North Idaho College early Friday for an exciting morning. They had the joy of witnessing their computer codes in action during a live streaming broadcast from the ISS.
The ISS Finals project tasked them with using graphical editors to write code to position coordinates to successfully navigate the red planet. The simulation included obstacles and real-world challenges, including exhausting CO2 tanks and batteries, losing signals and racing the clock.
"It's all the kids. They've done an amazing job this year, for sure," said Lakeland team lead instructor Rohnin Randles, 18. "The fact that they put in nearly 100 hours of their time during the summer, I mean, we didn’t ask them to be there. They asked to be there."
The final teams represented Idaho, West Virginia, Massachusetts, Georgia, Connecticut, Florida, Alabama, Texas, Washington, Oregon and Russia. The codes of the final teams were given to astronauts aboard the Space Station to test on simulation satellites in zero gravity. The competition is part of the Zero Robotics SPHERES (Synchronized Position Hold Engage Re-orient Experimental Satellites) Program.
Idaho championed the West Coast bracket while West Virginia earned the East Coast title.
“It makes me feel really proud that I got chosen to do this program,” said incoming Lakeland High School freshman Macayla Hunter, 14. "At first I thought, 'Wow, this is going to be really hard,' because I know there are a lot of smart kids out there that do this kind of stuff. It was a challenge at first because none of us knew how to program from the start."
The students spent five weeks tackling this objective, leveling up their computer skills while getting hands-on programming experience in a teamwork setting.
"If you work independent, nothing’s going to get done,” said incoming Canfield Middle School seventh-grader Joey Specht, 12. "That’s why you have to work as a team. At first we were going to try to do our own, because that’s what everyone wanted to do and nothing was getting done. Then we tried working as a team and our code eventually got done. There is no ‘I’ in team.”