TWIN FALLS — Nearly 30 Magic Valley middle schoolers are learning about computer programming, robotics and space engineering through a free program at the College of Southern Idaho.

On Wednesday, students created sphere models using pieces of foam and toothpicks to learn about coordinate systems. It was a visual illustration of three axes, which students labeled x, y and z.

On Earth, it’s easy to navigate with your feet on the floor, but it’s harder in space, said RD Van Noy, an assistant professor of information technology education at CSI.

“We need to tell these spheres where they are and how to get where they’re going,” he told students.

Students went outside to a grassy area on CSI’s Twin Falls campus to play a game of Simon Says. They followed prompts, such as taking one step forward along the positive y axis. A few bumped into each other as they moved the wrong direction.

CSI is among nine sites across Idaho to hold a “Zero Robotics” program this summer, coordinated by the Idaho Afterschool Network.

It’s the first year the college has hosted the program, which started Tuesday and wraps up Aug. 4.

Curriculum provides students with hands-on robotics and coding experience. Organizers hope it will stimulate students’ interest in science and boost their problem-solving abilities.

In total, 28 Magic Valley students are participating. They’ll meet for three hours every day Monday through Friday for five weeks.

“This is a really intense commitment,” said Van Noy, one of the state’s master trainers for the Zero Robotics program. He went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology a few weeks ago to prepare.

Help from astronauts

The program culminates in a tournament — first, among Idaho teams and then nationally.

Astronauts aboard the International Space Station will take codes created by students across the nation, put them into a satellite and judge how well they do.

Students will watch via a live streaming video. The top code nationwide will be used aboard the space station.

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Katrina Whatcott, 11, has done coding before in school and likes it.

The incoming sixth-grader, who will attend West Minico Middle School in Paul, is excited to see a live feed in early August from the International Space Station. “That sounds awesome.”

Zero Robotics is organized in cooperation with the MIT Space Systems Lab, Innovation Learning Center and Aurora Flight Sciences. It’s sponsored by NASA, the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space and Northrop Grumman Foundation.

Students will write code to control the speed, rotation and direction of small satellites called SPHERES, which stands for Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites. Three SPHERES are used at the International Space Station.

Middle schoolers will use a program called Scratch, created by MIT, to write code. “It’s really accessible for this age group,” Van Noy said.

Students are assisted by mentors, most of whom are middle school teachers or college students.

On the second day of the program Wednesday, students picked team names and learned about coordinate systems. They also wrote code to explain how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

After a brainstorming session, Van Noy asked students: “OK, how’s everybody’s names?” The five teams shared their names: Potato Botz, Spirit of Curious Discovery, Bowtied Penguins, Guardians of the Galaxy and Timelords.

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