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Salem middle-schoolers LEAP into space

NASA
The International Space Station orbits the Earth.

Aboard the International Space Station, codes developed by middle schoolers across the country were uploaded to MIT-designed robots. It was a competition to see who had crafted the best code, and thanks to 18 students from Salem public schools who participate in LEAP for Education, Massachusetts was in the running.

“We’re in our 15th year here,” said Linda Saris, LEAP for Education’s executive director. LEAP stands for Learn, Explore, Aspire, and Pursue. It offers a variety of enrichment programs for those age 11 to 24, predominantly in science, technology, education, and math (STEM).

But it’s LEAP’s middle school team, Zero Robotics, that took first place among the 12 groups in the state, including teams from the Malden YMCA and Everett Public Schools, and participated in a nationwide competition Aug. 12 at MIT. Students from Salem Academy Charter School, Saltonstall School, Collins Middle School, and Nathaniel Bowditch watched the finals via a live satellite as astronauts tested their work onboard the International Space Station about 250 miles above the Earth.

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The teams were tasked with solving a challenge developed by MIT students. They worked for five weeks coding small robots to perform maintenance functions on the ISS. Teams from 11 other states also made the finals.

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With LEAP’s winning code, the Mass. team ended up coming in fifth in the finals, won by schools from Florida.

“The Zero Robotics program is something we’ve been a part of for the past five years,” said Kayla Dorst, STEM coordinator at LEAP.

Zero Robotics is a nationwide program sponsored by MIT, NASA, the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space, and the Northrop Grumman Foundation.

In Salem, LEAP has managed to attract a large number of young girls to its STEM programs. According to Saris, over half the members on the Zero Robotics team are girls, one of whom designed the winning code.

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This year, LEAP also implemented a “Girls Who Code Club.” The interest, according to Saris, happened organically.

“It’s hard because there’s always room for improvement but our time is limited, but that is what makes it so challenging,” said Georgia Mazuzan, who will be a sixth-grader at the Salem Academy Charter School in the fall. “It’s constantly a work in progress.”

For the final round of competition, LEAP, and the teams from Everett and Malden collaborated to make the Salem team’s code work better for the nationals.

“Even though the code won [the state], it’s not perfect,” said Cayly Fishbein, a rising sixth-grader at Collins Middle School. “We will make it better!”

LEAP serves about 350 students a year in Salem, Peabody, and Gloucester and, at the rate Zero Robotics is going, might just leave its mark in outer space.

07noleap - Some of the LEAP students. (LEAP for Education)
LEAP for Education
Some of the LEAP students in Salem.

Vanessa Nason can be reached at vanessa.nason@globe.com