Middle School Science Team Wins MIT Robotics Competition

Thursday, August 25, 2011
By Cary Shuman

Pictured from left Michael Mahoney, 7th grade science teacher Chris Farnsworth, Matthew Sennott, Andrew Alcala, Matthew Bruno, MIT mentor Ralph Ilunga, Cameron Barker, James Forster, Scott LePage, Amanda Pelletier, Cameron DeAngelo, Nicolae Opincaru, Christine Haskell, Elizabeth Carsely, Krystle Boyajian, 8th grade science teacher Erica Murdoch.

The Winthrop Middle School zero robotics team, under the direction of seventh grade science teacher Chris Farnsworth and eighth grade science teacher Erica Murdoch, took home first place honors in the MIT Zero Robotics Competition.

Winning top honors in a major tournament at the nation’s foremost university for science is prestigious enough, but having a United States astronaut inform you from an international space station that you’re No. 1 – it all resulted in an experience the 14 Winthrop students and their teachers will remember for a long time.

Council President Jeffrey Turco recognized the magnitude of the achievement, congratulating the students during the live broadcast of the Aug. 16 council meeting just hours after Winthrop had won the tournament.

The Winthrop team consisted of incoming sixth, seventh, eighth, and ninth graders. The team was put together through a grant obtained by the Winthrop 21st Century Community Learning Center led by director Kathy DelVento. WMS Principal Martha Kelleher also endorsed the project.

The Winthrop students programmed satellites to run autonomously in space using the computer language C-plus.

“The idea is to be able to have satellites bring supplies to the space station without being manned – to actually be able to fly themselves,” said Farnsworth.

The two WMS teachers helped the students fine-tune their scientific skills during a five-week summer course at the middle school library.

Farnsworth said the entire experience was educational and rewarding, but it was hard to top the moment when the astronaut announced the winner.

“That was probably the best part – hearing the astronaut congratulate Winthrop,” related Farnsworth.

Winthrop had high expectations heading into the competition. “We’ve had two really good teams the past two years,” said Farnsworth. “The students on this team were highly motivated. They not only worked hard during class but they went home and tried to master the code. We attribute our victory to a combination of the students’ hard work and motivation and our MIT student mentor Ralph Ilunga.”

The competition tested the students’ knowledge of astronomy, physics, computer technology, and algebra. “Our students had to be proficient in a number of subjects,” said Farnsworth.

Interestingly, MIT student Ben Sena of Winthrop stopped by the competition to support the WMS team.

“Ben’s a great example for what Winthrop students can achieve,” said Farnsworth.

The Winthrop High students outpointed four other middle school teams to win the championship plaque. Each student also received an official U.S. Astronaut patch.

“We’ll display the plaque in the lobby,” said Farnsworth proudly.

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