More than a dozen faculty, students and staff from The University of New Mexico’s Department of Computer Science will be making the trek to Kennedy Space Center in Florida for the third annual NASA Swarmathon, which will be held April 17-19.
The event will be live-streamed on Facebook and will involve hundreds of high school and college students from around the country who will compete on different teams in the robotics programming skills competition. The grand prize winning team will receive $5,000.
Swarmathon is the brainchild of Melanie Moses, associate professor of computer science at UNM, who developed the competition as a way to involve a diverse group of students in putting programming and code — which can often seem abstract — into a real-life and fun project. The “swarmie” robots are programmed using what is called Robot Operating System (ROS) to do certain tasks, so students get to see how their code input affects the behavior of the robots.
New this year is a Mission to Mars competition, where students will write code and prepare reports in a sort of hybrid creative/programming project. These competitors will imagine a task to perform on Mars, then write code to make it happen. The competition will be judged by NASA engineers and educators.
In addition, participants at Swarmathon have the opportunity to meet NASA engineers during networking events.
Moses, who runs the competition with students in her Biological Computation Lab in the Farris Engineering Center, said that in just a few years, the competition has grown in scope and popularity, attracting diverse participants from as far away as Puerto Rico. “The competition also has attracted significant media coverage, including features on educational television shows geared toward youth and in social media, which has spurred its popularity”, Moses said.
Since the competition’s inception, more than 1,000 college students and around 500 high school students have participated. Moses said about 63 percent of the students participating belong to an under-represented group, which fits the mission of the program. It is administered under a cooperative agreement between the NASA Minority University Research and Education Program (MUREP) and UNM.
Moses says she’s hopeful that some of these students will ultimately choose to pursue computer science or STEM as a career, at UNM or elsewhere.
“It’s a great recruiting tool,” Moses said. “Students are able to take the technical skills they learn in programming class and put it work in a collaborative environment where they must overcome numerous challenges. One of the most important things they learn is that these are complex problems and there are no right answers, but many approaches to creatively come to a solution.”
To learn more, check out videos of past competitions.