CSULB Teams Place in NASA Robotics Competition

Published August 24, 2022

Middle-school students had a chance to see their code evaluated on the International Space Station as part of the first year of the Zero Robotics competition at CSULB.

Forty students, mostly from the Los Angeles Unified School District, participated in the summer program, made possible with a three-year, $131,000 NASA grant. Two of the teams placed first and second.

“The students were very excited. Some of them had never coded before,” said Saba Yohannes Reda, Director of K-12 Outreach & Recruitment with COE’s Engineering Student Success Center.

The robotics programming competition, produced in collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, featured robotic SPHERES satellites inside the ISS. The competition started online, with mentor-guided teams competing to solve the annual challenge.

The students created, edited, shared, saved, simulated and submitted code via a web browser. After several phases of virtual competition, finalists were selected to compete in a live championship aboard the ISS. An astronaut conducted the championship competition in microgravity with a live broadcast.

Participants met twice a week for five weeks and received mentorship from eight CSULB engineering majors. Mechanical engineering junior Stephanie Turcios, one of the mentors, said the students were intrigued by the chance to participate in a NASA competition. Only two of them had experience with block coding.

“In the beginning, it was difficult for students who were new to coding,” said Turcios, who previously worked as a tutor in COE’s Best Engineering Student Success Team (BESST) and MESA programs.

But the chance to help younger students enter the engineering world made the challenges worth it. “It was just a perfect job,” she said. “Just to be able to help the new generation is really impactful to me.”

Turcios said her interest in aerospace engineering was inspired by her grandfather, Jose Molina, who emigrated from El Salvador and earned a mechanical engineering degree from Cal State Los Angeles. As a student at Downey High School, she worked on a rover and was part of the robotics team.