Durham Tech takes first place in national NASA competition

After months of hard work, a group of Durham Technical Community College students took home the top award at a national NASA competition this month.

The Programmabulls, as the Durham Tech student group is known, won first place in the Physical Team competition at the 2018 NASA Swarmathon, a three-day robotics event at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, on April 19. The prize included a $5,000 check and trophy.

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

“This was a huge learning experience for me,” said Meredith Murray, a Durham Tech student who helped the team with its photography and videography. “It involved a lot of trial and error. It involved a lot (of) taking initiative and making things happen instead of waiting to be told to do something. We succeeded because we have good leadership that knows how to utilize people and talents. We have team members who are curious individuals that are willing to work and work at a problem until it’s solved, and we have great camaraderie and a lot of heart.”

Durham Tech competed against more than two dozen other colleges from around the country. Two other community colleges competed in the event and the competing four-year universities included Fayetteville State University, Winston-Salem State University, the University of Houston, and the University of Maryland at College Park.

“Our rovers performed much better than I could have ever believed, and that was a great sensation to experience,” said Soham Pai Kane, Durham Tech student and team member. “As perfectionists, we couldn’t help but think that minor code bugs yielded us from our maximum potential, but we were more than satisfied with the outcome.”

The Programmabulls spent 20 hours each week during the last two semesters to build code for the rovers and complete other requirements of the competition, which included STEM outreach, technical writing, fundraising, and documenting the team’s progress on video.

“When we won, I felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulder. All the hours I spent in the lab working this semester, the past semester, and at my REU this summer had beared fruit for everyone to see, not just myself and those closest to me,” said Dan Koris, Durham Tech student and team member.

The Programmabulls also won first place in Best Team Video and second place in Best Technical Report.

“The first thing we heard was that we had won second place for our technical report,” said Julie Hoover, Durham Tech instructor and faculty sponsor. “Chris Sanchez, a Durham Tech student, had quietly taken the lead on the technical report, and the students had really been meticulous about research, so we were so excited to hear that we won an award.”

Hoover said the win was an emotional experience for the group.

“Then Meredith Murray took first place in the video competition, and the team just roared. Meredith has worked so hard on our social media and fundraising this year, and everyone knew just how much she deserved the award. When they announced that we’d won the whole thing? I cried. It was very emotional for me. This team has been through some tough times and to win it as a community college? That’s huge.”