There Are Robots In The International Space Station Coded By Australian High School Students

Image: The James Ruse Agricultural High School team with former NASA astronaut Greg Chamitoff

Feeling like you're not achieving much in life? This probably isn't going to help.

Last Friday, students, parents and teachers from Gosford High School, James Ruse Agricultural High School, Mosman High School, Sydney Boys High School and Sydney Technical High School watched the 2017/18 championships of the Zero Robotics programming competition livestream, organised by NASA and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

They saw robots inside the International Space Station, controlled by code they had written themselves as a part of the competition.

The Zero Robotics competition is designed for students to test their coding skills on NASA robots known as SPHERES (Synchronized, Position Hold, Engage, Reorient Experimental Satellites). SPHERES are about the size of a basketball, and float in zero gravity in side the ISS.

Each SPHERE was coded by students to complete a set of tasks in the shortest amount of time. The five NSW schools in the competition beat out more than 200 schools from around the world to make it to the finals event. Sydney Boys High School and Sydney Technical High School made it to the semi-finals.

James Ruse Agricultural High School took out first place in the Zero Robotics Virtual Championship, a separate competition in which teams who hadn't made it to the Zero Robotics Championship finals got the chance to compete virtually with one another. As one of the top two teams in the virtual competition, the students still got to see their code used to move the SPHERES in the ISS.

The students said they were "ecstatic" to have won the virtual title.

As part of its STEM outreach activities, the University of Sydney supported more than 300 Year 9-12 students from 56 high schools across NSW in the Zero Robotics competition. This year, the competition was expanded to allow more high school students to participate (up from 20 schools last year), including, for the first time, schools in rural and regional areas such as Orange and Kew.

Sixty current University of Sydney Engineering and IT students and recent graduates volunteered to mentor the high school students this year. Over nine months, mentors guided the teams through the process of learning the computer code, maths and physics behind the motion of the robots, while also helping students develop valuable soft skills including teamwork, effective communication and international collaboration. In the finals, teams were made up of international alliances of three schools, who had to work together across cultural, language and time-zone challenges to develop their code for the competition.

"Participating in Zero Robotics allows high school students to advance their skills in engineering, science, maths and computing – and in previous years we have seen some of these students be inspired to continue studying these subjects at university. With the Australian government recently announcing plans to establish our nation's own space agency, these competing high school students could very well be among Australia's first generation of local space engineers," said University of Sydney Executive Director of Space Engineering Warwick Holmes.

"Zero Robotics proves that anyone, of any age, can learn to code if you've got the drive to learn. Zero Robotics offers students that motivation – it's just like playing a video game, except that it’s actually happening in real life, in space," said Zero Robotics competition coordinator Penny Player, who is studying mechatronics engineering and physics at the University of Sydney.

This is the third year Australian schools have competed in Zero Robotics. In 2016, one school team (Normanhurst Boys High School) reached the finals. In 2017, teams from North Sydney Boys High School and Gosford High School took out second and third place respectively in the competition. Three other teams – from Barker College, Fort Street High School and James Ruse Agricultural High School – also reached the finals.

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