Code creation and robot rovers: kids explore planets from home

Scientists adjust the Remote3 project in order that children can learn and develop coding and technological skills during lockdown.

Remote3 was designed to help students from remote schools in the Scottish Highlands and Islands access exciting science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) challenges.  Since lockdown, the project has been adapted to continue online. Children all over the country have been attending weekly webinars that introduce a coding challenge and provide information about the uses of robots around the world.

Students have created code during weekly tasks which have become increasingly challenging. They have then had the chance to test their code remotely on a LEGO Mindstorm robot, submitting their work in advance, which is then tested live in the webinar. Experienced computer scientists, physicists and technicians have been on hand to answer students’ questions about coding, robots and science during the sessions.

Eight weeks on, the students have developed their skills to tackle the final summer challenge: a two-month project which will involve designing a planetary surface for their robot rovers to explore, as well as creating the code required to successfully explore it. At the end of the project in September, students will get the chance to test their completed code and celebrate their achievements in a final online event.

The Remote3 team combines School of Physics and Astronomy particle physicists Dr Xin Ran Liu and Prof. Alex Murphy, with the Boulby Underground Laboratory and Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) Public Engagement teams, along with support from STFC’s Scientific Computing Department.  The project was funded by the STFC Spark Award programme.

Xin reported:

We want the project to inspire innovation and creative design, develop digital skills, encourage teamwork, team-building and oral and written presentation skills in a diverse environment, as well as provide awareness of the remarkable ongoing front-line scientific activity taking place across the UK and overseas. In doing so we want to encourage the next generation of young people into a career in STEM subjects.

Remote3 originally aimed to give Scottish school children the chance to build and control LEGO rovers remotely more than one kilometre underground in the Boulby Underground Laboratory. The Boulby Underground Laboratory, on the edge of the North York Moors, is home to a Mars Yard, where students’ rovers will eventually be tested when the schools project can take place. The rovers will be following in the tracks of full-size Mars Rover prototypes, which have been tested there as part of international space research events in the past. The extremely salty, hot and dusty environment there simulates conditions found on other planets and will add to the challenge of the competition. The project is planned to run for at least two years, engaging with hundreds of students.