NAMPA -- Many, many generations ago a kid whose name we'll never know was the very first to look up into a midnight sky, spot a brightly shining object and think, "I'd like to go there." Many generations have since come and gone and, we'd guess, by now many millions more kids have done and said the same. One of these days, a lucky few kids will be the ones to make that dream come true.

Kids like a group of middle-schoolers who live at the 73-unit Gateway Crossing, a 5-unit, FHA-financed subsidize rental complex owned and operated by NeighborWorks Boise in Nampa, Idaho, a fast-growing city of more than 80,000 in the Treasure Valley just west of the state capital, Boise.

During the summer of 2016, reports Danielle Falck of NeighborWorks Boise's resident services coordinator, the group of five Gateway Crossing middle-schoolers who as a team soon would be known as The Evolutionary Coders were given a chance to "reach for the stars." It all started with Gateway Crossing's selection by the Idaho Afterschool Network's as a site to participate in the national Zero Robotics competition sponsored by NASA the National Aeronautics & Space Administration, the MIT Space Systems Lab, the Innovative Learning System and Aurora Flight Systems.

Zero Robotics ( is a five-week, STEM - science, technology, engineering and mathematics - program that pits middle-school teams from across the country in a competition to see which can best develop the SPHERES - Synchronized, Position, Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites - program that most effectively navigates a satellite through a series of obstacles while most efficiently conserving fuel. The programs, explains Professor R.D. Van Noy ( of the College of southern Idaho at Twin Falls, "need to tell these spheres where they are and how to get where they're going."

[Photo: Zero Robotics participants. Photo by NeighborWorks Boise]
Zero Robotics participants.
Photo by NeighborWorks Boise

It's a very full five weeks, says Ms. Falck. In addition to "hands-on" programming, the Exploratory Coders got to spend time at Boise State University's engineering facilities, to spend an afternoon with a real NASA astronaut - Steve Swanson - who shared with the team about his experiences in space, and helped them develop strategies to write a winning code competition. And, of course, they got the chance to collaborate with working astronauts aboard the International Space Station orbiting high above the Earth.

Each year's Zero Robotics challenge is different, reflecting an issue of interest to NASA and MIT. Once teams develop the programs, the ISS astronauts actually tests them on working satellites, evaluating how well the programs "get them where they're going" and, in a space-to-Earth telecast, offer the students detailed analyses of the work they've done and, of course, still need to do. And, of course, they rate-and-rank the entries.

In this summer's statewide competition, Gateway Terrace's Exploratory Coders placed second among nine Idaho teams. Undeterred, they teamed-up with Idaho's first-place middle-schoolers for the national finals against teams from 11 other states and Russia.

The Exploratory Coders didn't win this year's nationals. Fortunately, there's always next year and we wouldn't be surprised if they're among next year's Zero Robotics competitors.

Because, no surprise, it seems they've caught the space bug. "I don't have the best math skills, but getting into coding has really made me want to improve them more," explains one Idaho competitor to KTVB-TV ( "The simulations are really fun to get to see your code work out, but even more fun is when it glitches and it did something incredibly strange,"

And who knows. If she continues along the path in 10 or 20 years she may write the program that sends a spacecraft to that brightly-shining object in the night sky that she may have seen and thought to herself, "I'd like to go there."


Content Archived: January 23, 2018