When students in River Hill High School's Advanced Computer Science classes entered a worldwide high school robotics competition last year that involved programming International Space Station satellites, they figured their chances of winning were mathematically improbable.
They were wrong.
The River Hill students were part of an alliance — a team of three schools — that captured first place in the Zero Robotics High School Tournament, and now they're looking for a repeat performance.
Known as Team Rocket, the River Hill group will be among teams from the U.S. and Europe competing in the second Zero Robotics meet, slated for Jan. 11.
Zero Robotics is a computer programming competition sponsored by NASA and the Virginia-based Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Teams in the competition form alliances to write computer programs to run on satellites aboard the International Space Station.
The River Hill High team is among four in the state slated to compete in Zero Robotics finals, to be held at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Others are Marriotts Ridge High School in Marriottsville, Poolesville High School and Winston Churchill High School in Potomac. Each team's berth in the finals comes after three months of dueling via online simulations.
Teams in the U.S. will travel to MIT to test their programs aboard the International Space Station, while European teams will meet in the Netherlands to do so.
Astronauts aboard the space station operate the satellites, and the competition begins when students work to solve challenges created by Zero Robotics mentors. Students must craft software that controls satellite speed and direction, while also working to conserve power and fuel.
"The unique thing with this is that they have to use advanced math, they have to use advanced physics and advanced computer science to solve the problem," said Anne Contney, computer science teacher at River Hill and co-adviser of its Maryland Technology Honor Society.
The competition plays well toward the school's interest in promoting STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) courses.
"It's a huge STEM project," said Contney. "It brings in engineers from the industry, and (the students) go to this university setting."
Stephen Chen was a member of the River Hill team that competed last year in an alliance with teams from Rockledge High School in Brevard County, Fla., and Storming Robots, a technology learning center in Branchburg, N.J.
Chen said he and classmates initially decided to try Zero Robotics for the sheer challenge of it. Ultimately, he said, they began to invest more class time to the competition, and that enabled them to progress past the national stages to the finals, where they competed against international teams.
Still, even as they advanced, the thought of winning seemed remote.
"We were thinking that there must be some other school out there that knows what they're doing and has a lot of other resources dedicated toward this kind of thing," said Chen, a senior. "We're just a group of computer science students. It came to us as a big shock when we won."
Zero Robotics officials said in this year's tournament, the challenge deals with handling space junk in low earth orbit. River Hill students say the tournament fuels their interest in problem-solving.
"I've always enjoyed planning and making strategies," said River Hill senior Holden Smith. "I have a chess mindset, and being able to look at not only the rules of the game but then how the game plays — out and how to counter different strategies — is a lot of fun."
"It's just like overcoming a challenge," said Angelica Dayhoff, another River Hill senior who said she originally gravitated toward the school's computer science courses merely to get a technology credit, but discovered a passion for it.
"The greatest part is when you figure it out and solve it, she said. "It's kind of like relief, and you feel really proud of yourself."
Contney acknowledged that much of the physics and advanced math used in the tournament is beyond her scope, adding, "I know the computer science, but the last time I took a math physics class was 35 years ago."
She said her students have always worked well with mentors, and that prompted her to consider the enrolling the River Hill students in Zero Robotics, and ensuring they had time during class for programming.