hgazette.com, Haverhill, MA

November 25, 2011

Robotics competition winners' work to be tested aboard International Space Station

By Tim McCarthy
tmccarthy@hgazette.com

After taking on the world in competitive Botball tournaments last summer, members of the Haverhill Robotics Club have their sights set on the stars.

The club, along with clubs from 161 other high schools and universities, is taking part in the Zero Robotics SPHERES (Synchronized Position-Hold Engage Reorient Experimental Satellites) Challenge. Overseen by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and NASA, SPHERES challenges students to solve complex astronautical engineering questions by programing robots.

More than simple ball carriers and block pushers, these robots require students to code and create operations for the robots to operate in three dimension while competing against other students' creations for points. Top scorers will have their code tested aboard the International Space Station in a live experiment performed by an astronaut. "It's exciting," said John Sanders, 15, as he manipulated thruster calculations from his laptop. "They're going to test your code while on the space station."

The Haverhill team has survived three rounds of competition. Each round requires them to code under different conditions, such as along a two dimensional plane.

Teams have the opportunity to form "alliances" and work together, which has led Haverhill to team up with schools from California and Florida.

Despite requiring them to spend long hours hunched over a keyboard, the participating students said they get great satisfaction in making their code sleek and efficient.

"One of the nice things is you can always work on this, even from home," Sanders said.

Although students have the option of coding their robots through a simple graphical interface, some of the SPHERES members prefer to get hands on with strictly text programming.

"When I can write out the code myself, I know what it will do," said Nate Bernard, 17.

Elaine Mistretta, robotics club advisor and Haverhill High math teacher, said the contest has proven to be one of the most difficult math challenges faced by her or her students.

"I've had to go around to other math teachers to get input," she said, noting many of the problems involve advanced calculus or geometry. "The three-dimensional math is pretty high level. This is a surprise for us every step of the way."

The robotics club accepts students from Haverhill High, Whittier Regional Vocational Technical High School and the city's middle schools. The program is a part of Access 21, a series of after-school extracurriculars offered through Haverhill High.