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Salem, Peabody CyberSpace students gear up for MIT robot competition

Posted by Justin Rice  August 11, 2011 06:29 PM

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Salem CyberSpace students Jay Luna, Leslie Scarpetti, Andrew Lussier, Siah Linda Lebbie, Mercis Arias, Jadira Martinez and Victor Acosta watch the spheres robots at MIT. (Photo courtesy of Salem CyberSpace)

By Justin A. Rice, Town Correspondent

Naturally, Nicole Balcacer figured learning computer code would be the farthest thing from fun she could imagine doing this summer. But the Peabody teenager's tune changed when she learned that the summer robotics program at Salem CyberSpace is culminating at MIT on Tuesday with a robotics competition that unfolds on the International Space Station.

“When I heard my mom was signing me up for a summer activity about science I kind of thought it would be a little boring,” the incoming Salem Academy freshman said. “I do like science generally, but I kind of thought it would be facts and no fun; kind of like a waste of time. But after spending one day here it was nice to see it wasn’t supposed to be taken like school.

“We did a lot of activities. It was hands and we got right into it.”

While most of those activities -- including building bottle rockets and learning how to program robots designed to perform maintenance on the Space Station -- took place at CyberSpace (98 Lafayette St.), the students also took a field trip to MIT to test their programs.

For the second straight year, the 5-week program was offered through North Shore Community Action Programs, Inc. thanks to a NASA grant aimed at teaching robotics to middle-school students.

“Last year they chose 10 programs to participate but this year they had less money to disperse so they said 'We only want to work with five programs,'" said Linda Saris, director of  CyberSpace, which provides educational and career opportunities for low-income youth and adults. "MIT and the Massachusetts Afterschool Partnership selected five of the 10 programs from last year to do it again this year.
 
“The reason they fund it is because they found kids were opting out of science and math in middle school so by the time they go to high school they already decided they are not interested in anything to do with math and science.”

The other major difference between this year’s camp and last year’s is that NASA and MIT took the training wheels off this year in their approach to teaching an advanced computer language known as C Programing.

“Last year MIT built a user friendly baby version of C programing so middle school kids could do it,” Saris said. “This year they decided to see if middle school kids could learn C code. I tell you I was skeptical going into this summer. C code has a very specific grammar rules so you have parentheses and semicolons and if you don’t put them in the right place it doesn’t work. 

“I was pleasantly surprised. We have 15 kids in the program and half of them got into it. It’s interesting because most of the kids have never been exposed to programing.”

Now Balcacer can imagine herself pursuing a career in programing. She said the most difficult and frustrating part of learning the new language was making sure every command was in place.

“If you forget a semicolon here or forgot a comma there the whole program is wack and you had to find your mistake, it was very stressful,” she said.

To demonstrate the point that their code needs to be specific as possible, camp councilors told students to write instructions on how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, starting with how to take the bread out of the bag and the lid off the jars.

After about a week and a half the students felt more comfortable writing code. 

“It’s not easy but it’s relatively straight forward once you get the hang of it," Balcacer said. “It was pretty simple.”

On Tuesday Salem CyberSpace will compete against the four other camps participating in the program at MIT. Each team's final computer program will be uploaded onto robots the size of soccer balls aboard the Space Station. The students will watch to see if their can perform several specified tasks via a live satellite feed. Some astronauts will also be on the video feed to greet the students.

Saris said last year’s Salem CyberSpace team went to MIT confidence in their program but ended up getting “creamed.” Balacacer said she knows it will be an amazing experience regardless of how their robot performs; win or lose she just wants to know if her commas and semicolons were all in place.

"Not a lot of kids my age, or not a lot of kids in general, can say they talked to someone in space or say they programmed a robot that went to space," she said. "It’s very mind blowing that I can actually say 'I was one of the few kids that gets to have an experience like this to program something that gets to go to space.' It’s just amazing.”


Justin A. Rice can be reached at jrice.globe@gmail.com

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