Summer Robotics Article published in the Winthrop Transcript Aug. 11, 2010
By Seth Daniel
By Seth Daniel
For the most part, summertime for young people is the stuff of hanging out on the Beach, playing video games or maybe getting a little summer job, but for a handful of Winthrop Middle Schoolers, this summer has been all about space and science.
Acting on a grant offered for the first time ever by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and brokered by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), two middle school teachers were able to secure a rare opportunity for Winthrop students. The grant was also sponsored by the Massachusetts Afterschool Partnership and Kathy's Place Youth Center.
Chris Farnsworth and Erica Murdoch, both middle school science teachers, said that Winthrop got a NASA Summer of Innovation Grant, a new grant for middle schoolers allowing them to learn about using computer programming in space.
"Massachusetts was one of only four states that got the grant from NASA and we were one of only 10 schools in Massachusetts to get funding," said Murdoch. "It's a five-week program that has to do with coding for SPHERES, which are satellites."
It's a heavy subject for the lazy days of summer, and Farnsworth said it has been challenging, but the 18 students participating have been up to the task.
"This kind of programming talks about astronomy, about physics, algebra and calculus," he said. "They've been getting a good little workout. It's pretty brainy stuff. There were a couple of days we all went home very mentally exhausted. They always talk about the summer lag because kids aren't using academics as much. These kids certainly have been using their brains this summer."
Murdoch added that she has been able to witness the students using information that she taught them last school year.
"I have enjoyed seeing them use some of the concepts I taught them in 8th grade," she said. "They had to reflect on those concepts to understand things in this program - concepts like friction and velocity."
The program is based at Winthrop Middle School three days a week, where one will find kids huddled around computers - frantically working math formulas and typing codes into their computer program.
However, one day a week, the students get to take a field trip to MIT to learn about various concepts from MIT professors or from guest speakers - guest speakers that have included former astronaut Jeff Hoffman.
"The best part of this is going to MIT," said participant Katelynn Stimpson.
In short, students from 6th, 7th, and 8th grade are writing computer programs that could be used to control the direction and pathway of a space satellite. While the programs, called coding, are only computer simulations, the exercise is a real life application - as NASA astronauts apply the same concepts when programming the movements of real space satellites.
Students have to write their codes, also, with a mind towards space - where there is no gravity. So, they have to use mathematic formulas to determine how fast their satellite will travel, and to throw in a curveball, they have to make their satellite avoid obstacles in space and they have to make their satellite dock on a space station.
Along with Farnsworth and Murdoch, MIT junior Patrick Rodriguez is available to assist the kids with their work.
Believe it or not, such a complex - and sometimes mundane - task has invigorated the kids.
"Science is my favorite subject, so I thought it would be an interesting activity," said Amanda Pelletier. "It's not too bad. Spending all your time on coding and then seeing it work is pretty exciting."
Said Rachel Wadkins, an 8th grader, "I usually do sports, but I decided to join this and I've had a lot of fun. The satisfaction of using a new language like coding and then seeing that language move things - there's a lot of satisfaction in that."
This Thursday, the program will culminate with a good-spirited competition at MIT between various schools, including Winthrop, Chelsea, Lynn, Malden and several others from Greater Boston.
"We'll be taking everyone's code - one program from each school - and sending them to the astronauts in the International Space Station," said Rodriguez. "This Thursday (today, Aug. 12), all the students in the program will go to MIT and the astronauts will run the codes and we'll see who wins."
The competition will be fierce, but Winthrop team captains Jake Lloyd and Eric Wadkins are pretty optimistic.
"We have a chance," said Eric Wadkins. "Our code is running pretty good."
Group shot at MIT
Eric Wadkins (sitting) and Jake Lloyd work on a computer coding project as part of a new program at Winthrop Middle School this summer. The program comes through a grant from NASA and MIT, and it teaches middle schoolers how to use computer programming in space - specifically to control the movements of space satellites.