hgazette.com, Haverhill, MA

January 24, 2013

From robotics nut to MIT student?

Whittier High senior shoots for his dream school

The Haverhill Gazette

---- — Nate Bernard hopes his recent participation in a national robotics competition will help sway his pending application to the school of his dreams — Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Bernard, a senior at Whittier Regional High, will update his application by explaining how the computer programming code he helped write successfully controlled a basketball-sized robot floating in zero gravity inside the International Space Station. His code caused the robot to maneuver around virtual obstacles and pick up virtual objects in the world’s first robotics competition in space. It was tested by NASA astronauts twice, right in front of his eyes.

“It’s pretty exciting seeing what you wrote working in space,” he said about the Zero Robotics competition finals he took part in on Feb. 11 at MIT.

Bernard, 18, is captain of Haverhill’s Access21 Robotics Team, a Haverhill High group he joined in seventh grade as a student at Hunking Middle School. He remembers the day a senior taught him how to use programming language.

“I was pretty excited about it,” he said.

During freshman year at Whittier, Bernard was a programming captain. He also builds and programs robots for Botball competitions, which this year were modeled after the Curiosity robot that landed on Mars. Two years ago, his success at Botball sent him to California to participate in the Global Conference on Educational Robotics.

This is the second year students in the Access21 program competed in Zero Robotics, and the first time the team made it to the finals.

“I’ve always liked to build things,” he said.

School officials said they believe if Bernard is accepted to MIT, he will be the first Whittier student to go there.

Bernard has fond memories of working with his grandfather, the late Robert Bernard, who taught him about household tools at a young age and had Nate assist him as he repaired the snow blower and lawnmower.

“I remember fixing my Big Jake dump truck, too,” he said.

In Zero Robotics, high school students from across the country compete to win a technically challenging game by programming their strategies into Synchronized Position-Hold Engage Reorient Experimental Satellites, or SPHERES. The game is motivated by a current problem of interest to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, NASA and MIT. Of the 96 high schools that entered the competition, only 27 made it to the finals.

“Our programming captain, Nate, is like Bill Gates — amazing,” said Elaine Mistretta, a Haverhill High math teacher who advises the after-school Access21 Robotics program. “He’s a really great programmer who passed AP programming with a 5 (a perfect score) as a junior. It’s unheard of for juniors to get a 5 on that test.”

Bernard has a perfect 4.0 grade point average and is ranked first in his class of 273 students at Whittier, where he studies electronics and robotics. The son of Nancy Bernard of Bradford, he plans to major in computer science and electronic engineering in college.

Bernard’s electronics/robotics instructor Chris Speropolous, a teacher in the field for 26 years, said there’s no question he should get into MIT.

“If anyone is going to be a productive engineer, it’s him,” Speropolous said. “He has an incredible technological background. The country needs more kids like Nate.”

In case MIT doesn’t come through, Bernard has applied to four other technology schools. He was deferred as an early action MIT candidate last month, but remains quietly hopeful he will be one of the 200 of 4,000 deferred candidates to be accepted during general admissions in March.

“I’ve always loved MIT,” he said. “They have amazing academics and a great community. When the school was built, it was engineered especially to inspire communication and new ideas.”

Bernard hopes when he sends in his second quarter grades — all A’s and A+’s — and his latest robotics performance, and maybe even a letter from Haverhill Mayor James Fiorentini, his application will get moved to the “yes” pile at MIT.

“My mom thought of the letter from the mayor and I emailed him,” he said.

Bernard is looking to win another gold medal in statewide and national SkillsUSA competitions coming up this spring. He has been winning medals since his sophomore year, when he captured gold at the district competition in robotics and automation technology. Last year, he won a silver medal at the state level, placing second in the state in the electronics technology field. This year, he wants a gold medal in states, and maybe in nationals.

Unfortunately, those medals will come too late for the MIT application, but Bernard continues to move forward. At work in Whittier’s lab last week, he was already testing for viable circuits to use in upcoming competitions.