Durham Tech robots ready to swarm at national NASA competition

They call themselves The ProgrammaBulls.

For the last seven months, a group of 20 Durham Technical Community College students have been working up to 20 hours per week to prepare for the 2018 NASA Swarmathon competition at the Kennedy Space Center.

Swarmathon requires teams to program rovers to work as a collective unit, or swarm, to pick up as many cubes on the ground possible and take them to home base. The purpose of the program is to improve students’ skills in robotics and further advance technology for future NASA space exploration.

“The students get exposed to things they wouldn’t normally get exposed to,” said Julie Hoover, faculty sponsor of The ProgrammaBulls and geology instructor at Durham Tech. “We don’t have anything else that we’re doing with this level of robotics, and they can interact with NASA engineers that run the competition to get help if they need it.”

Durham Tech was one of 23 colleges and one of only three community colleges selected around the nation to compete in Swarmathon.

“The confidence the students get from these projects and the professional skills they learn are invaluable,” Hoover said. “Most of the students have applied and been accepted to schools that they previously thought were out of their reach because of this project.”

What makes Swarmathon even more challenging are the various team requirements, which in turn provide opportunities for students who are not necessarily interested in science.

“In addition to the programming challenge, the team is required to do outreach, so they have to create a presentation, present it to various groups like Girl Scout troops, and then write a report about the presentation,” Hoover said. “There is also a video requirement that tells the story of the team, and check-in videos are due on a regular basis. A technical paper and creative writing paper are also required, so if a student likes writing, they can do that. If students want to be teachers, we can get them involved in outreach. There is also a fundraising component.”

The team also needs communications and photography experts, which is where Durham Tech student, Meredith Murray, steps in.

“I’m not much of a science person, but it feels great to be able to fulfill the team’s needs in videography and photography,” Murray said. “This experience also helped me get an interview for a communications internship with a NASA facility in West Virginia this summer.”

Nine students from the team will be traveling to Kennedy Space Center April 17-19 to attend the competition for the third consecutive year.

“Hearing about robotics at Durham Tech was coolest thing ever,” Murray said. “I thought it was fantastic that a community college was working on something that seems like it’s for top engineering schools.”