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Students Work With HOPE
A student walks behind a robot that is scooping soil

Part of the Lunabotics competition required that the Lunabot excavate lunar simulant. Image Credit: Mike Mazur

Outreach was a requirement of NASA’s Second Annual Lunabotics Mining Competition. So the Oakton Community College team took their robot to visit the Science and Arts Academy in Des Plaines, Ill.

Predictably, most of the first- and second-graders wanted to take pictures and touch the robot. What was not so predictable was the reason for choosing SAA as the school to visit: One of the Oakton team members was also a first-grade student at the academy.

How did a first-grader end up on a college-level robotics team? The story goes back to Halloween. Owen, a 7-year-old scientist, decided to dress up as the Bose-Einstein condensate. Bose-Einstein condensates are matter waves formed when very cold atoms merge to become a single "quantum mechanical blob." After hearing about Owen’s unique costume, Northwestern University professor and family friend Elizabeth Barden coordinated a visit to the university’s labs for Owen. She recommended he meet Oakton professor George Tootelian, who oversees Oakton’s lunabotics team.

The word HOPE spelled out using nuts, bolts and gears

Team member Owen came up with the name HOPE for Oakton’s Lunabot. He also designed the team’s logo. The slogan "Helping Others Pursue Education" inspired the group’s community outreach program. Image Credit: Beth Dudney

Part of the Engineering and Physics Club, Oakton Community College’s lunabotics team had qualified for the Lunabotics Mining competition, the only community college team to do so. This challenge wasn’t easy. But, after meeting Owen, professor Tootelian recognized the young student’s unusual passion for science and invited him to become part of the college’s team. The Oakton team included Valentina Krug, Mike Mazur, Andy Roach, Faheem Memon, Daniel Kramer, Kyle Uhl, Blake Levien, John Shaba, Felix Markman and faculty advisor Tootelian.

NASA’s Lunabotics Mining Competition is a university-level event designed to engage and retain students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Undergraduate and graduate students from colleges and universities from around the world build remote-controlled robots designed to NASA specifications. In the 2011 contest, each Lunabot had to navigate across rough terrain filled with craters and rocks to the mining area, excavate lunar simulant, pass back across the rough terrain and deposit the mined lunar simulant in the collection box.

Robotics team stands in front of a space capsule

Oakton Community College’s lunabotics team included, from left to right, Valentina Krug, Mike Mazur, Andy Roach, Faheem Memon, Daniel Kramer, Kyle Uhl, Blake Levien, John Shaba and George Tootelian. Owen is in the foreground. Image Credit: Mike Mazur

Owen met weekly with the team throughout the year. While Owen wasn't able to work with the power tools used to build the robot, he was able to help assemble the tracks and do a little painting. Owen looked forward to his weekly chats with Tootelian and Mike Mazur, the student team leader. According to Mazur, Owen made suggestions on possible modifications to the robot and many times was able to analyze why his own suggestions might not work. Owen was the team member who gave the Lunabot, or Bot for short, its name. Owen chose HOPE in the tradition of the Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity. He designed a logo for the team, as well. The slogan "Helping Others Pursue Education" was an inspiration of the team as a framework for their community outreach program.

HOPE was an appropriate name for a robot created on a budget of less than $2,000. The Lunabot was constructed of wood, metal, brooms, a bicycle chain and sprockets, and even a garbage can.

NASA’s Second Annual Lunabotics Mining Competition was held in May 2011 at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Thirty-six teams from around the globe attended the competition.

In the end, HOPE’s low cost did not matter; HOPE was one of only 18 robots to make it to the mining area. Sadly, the robot didn’t make it to the end. Tootelian explained why HOPE didn’t finish the competition, “The Bot sped to the wall and could not be stopped. We watched helplessly as the Bot struck the wall at a good clip and fell to its side. That finished us. Whereas, before, on practice day, we had a respectable quantity of lunar material harvested -- here, where it counted, we got zero.”

Even though HOPE didn’t win, Owen enjoyed the trip to Kennedy Space Center. "When I arrived to meet my team I was really, really excited. I loved it when they gave me a model space shuttle that they all had autographed. It's sitting on my bedroom bookcase." While there, Owen toured the Kennedy center with his family. "One of my favorite places at the KSC was the Rocket Garden where you can see all kinds of famous rockets.”

Currently, Owen’s hobbies are reading, thinking, spying and imagining. He already is working on next year’s Lunabotics Mining Competition. Owen’s plans call for an Archimedes screw, an idea he HOPEs will work.

Related Resources:
› Lunabotics Mining Competition
› Students Dig Sandbox Challenge at NASA Lunabotics Mining Competition
› NE Live@Lunabotics Mining Competition
› Canadian Team Wins Lunabotics Challenge  →
› Building HOPE

JoCasta Green/NASA Educational Technology Services