TWIN FALLS — It’s rare to meet a NASA astronaut and create computer coding that could be tested aboard the International Space Station.
Especially if you’re only in middle school.
But that’s what about 30 children from across the Magic Valley are doing this summer through a Zero Robotics program at the College of Southern Idaho.
The five-week camp — which focuses on science, technology, engineering and math — started last week. It’s free to students.
The program offers a chance for students to take abstract concepts and apply them to the real world.
“I think that this program is incredibly beneficial for this age group,” said RD Van Noy, camp organizer and CSI assistant professor of information technology.
Organizers hope to encourage students to avoid a fear of math and science, and boost their problem-solving skills.
“It’s taking things traditionally thought of as hard or intimidating and making it fun,” Van Noy said.
CSI is among 11 sites across Idaho offering the nationwide Zero Robotics program this summer. It’s the second year CSI has participated.
Elsewhere in south-central Idaho, the Cassia County School District’s spark after-school program and University of Idaho/Blaine County 4-H are also participating.
Students use a program developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to write computer coding 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.
It’s part of a virtual competition. In August, all of Idaho’s sites will travel to Boise State University for a final competition.
They’ll transmit Idaho’s first place code to the International Space Station and students will watch via live video conference as astronauts run the winning code from each participating state and Russia.
It’s the second year 13-year-old Gooding student Ethan Strout has signed up for the CSI program.
“There’s a new game every year,” he said. “It’s a lot of fun.”
It was challenging to learn programming at first, Ethan said. He has also been involved with LEGO robotics programs.
One highlight of the camp: a field day Monday, where students received a visit from NASA astronaut Steve Swanson. They also toured CSI’s Centennial Observatory and saw a planetarium show.
The “zero” in Zero Robotics means it’s offered at zero cost to students and the competition is conducted in zero gravity, Van Noy said.
But with no cost to students, it means writing grant applications to fund CSI’s offering. “Just because it’s zero cost to students, doesn’t mean it’s free to put on,” he said.
Zero Robotics is sponsored by MIT’s Space Systems Laboratory, NASA and Northrop Grumman Aurora Flight Sciences. CSI’s program received grants, as well as support from groups such as the CSI Foundation and Idaho Afterschool Network.
There’s a focus on serving female and minority students.
Students had to apply for the CSI program, but “we didn’t turn anybody away,” Van Noy said.
Students are learning about coding by using a drag-and-drop system. It gives middle schoolers a good foundation for how programming works, Van Noy said.
CSI’s Zero Robotics program is the largest site in the state. And last year, it tied for third place in the state for the virtual competition.
Students receive mentoring from Van Noy — who received MIT training to lead the Zero Robotics program — as well as CSI computer science instructor KayZin Cresswell and teacher Shannon Youngman.
Plus, several college students are helping out.
During the program, students will go field trips, including to Utah State University’s Space Dynamics Laboratory. Students also do lots of on-site activities, such as baking food in solar ovens.