Space invaders: CHS robotics team goes international

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Max Patek, a programmer for the Charlottesville High School zero robotics team, says working through math and physics equations can be tough. Photo by
Mina Pirasteh Max Patek, a programmer for the Charlottesville High School zero robotics team, says working through math and physics equations can be tough. Photo by Mina Pirasteh

group of Charlottesville High School students are on an espionage mission from NASA to capture photographs of a competitor satellite while managing a limited store of energy and avoiding having their own satellite’s photo snatched by the competitor.

BACON, or the Best All-around Club of Nerds, has been doing a pretty good job at it, too. Placing fourth in the world after three rounds of competition, the team has qualified for the Olympics of high school robotics in a contest, Zero Robotics, sponsored by organizations such as NASA, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the European Space Agency.

This competition requires teams to write computer code to control their pre-programmed virtual robot, which goes up against another team’s bot in the challenge. The finals take place at MIT, where the 180 teams get to see their codes run on satellites aboard the International Space Station.

“It’s kind of mind-blowing that this opportunity exists and that you can do this as a high schooler,” says BACON president and senior Nathan Shuster. Under his guidance, the team placed second in the international competition last year.

Of the 13 boys and girls on the CHS zero robotics team, not everyone’s job is programming or writing code. Holding such a high title in competition takes plenty of plotting and planning, so some team members act as strategizers—solely studying other teams’ coding methods in order to write strategies that compare with their own and to simulate potential enemies.

“We look at a lot of games of opponents playing,” sophomore Jonah Weissman says. “We see stuff that works and stuff that doesn’t and see what would be the ideal strategy.”

Programming the robot requires knowledge of a mathematical concept called vectors, he explains. While Weissman learned about vectors in school last year, he says he’s learning about force this year, which has also helped prepare him for this competition season.

The team’s mentor and faculty adviser, Matt Shields, is an award-winning CHS physics and engineering teacher. He says his role is limited, though.

“I would love to take some credit, but I’ve literally had nothing to do with this,” he says. “There they are, right back there, and I’m sure they’re doing something smart.”

Shields, who received a 2014 MIT Inspirational Teacher Award, commends the students for being “self-motivated, clever, smart and hard-working.”

He says the team is well-known in the realm of high school zero robotics, and when they show up at the competition this year, they’ll be rolling in like a bunch of “nerd celebrities.”

“I couldn’t be more proud of these guys,” he says. “They’re such rock stars.”

Shuster, while still applying to several colleges—namely the Ivys, UVA and engineering schools such as MIT—reflects on his three-year stint in zero robotics and the legacy he’ll leave.

“When people think about the best names in ZR,” says Shuster, “one of the names that will come to mind is BACON.” As for the hammy name? Shields attests that “everything cool about this club was some kid’s crazy idea.”

BACON will compete in a three-part international alliance with teams from California and Greece at the final competition in January.