This past week, 36 students from four Northern Virginia middle schools were called upon to help NASA launch a mock Mars mission. Dubbed the Project Red Rover Robotics Program, the mission tasked students with the building, programming, and automation of a Vex IQ robot that simulated a Mars rover. For four days, the student astronauts and engineers worked alongside their classmates and 13 Virginia Tech engineering undergraduate and graduate students.

“This program empowers the students to see what’s around them while they build engineering skills, partner with fellow students, and work with engineers in the field,” said Pamela Gilchrist, director of K-12 Programs at the Virginia Tech Innovation Campus.

Students were briefed on the mission by Ronald Gamble, a NASA Goddard theoretical astrophysicist. “This is a mission concept utilizing multiple vehicles and automated technology on the surface of Mars to collect and return soil samples without people traveling to the planet,” Gamble said over a pre-recorded video. “Discoveries on Mars can give us important clues about the origin of and life on our planet.”

Once they understood the mission, students were separated into four groups and teams of two or three to build their rovers. The undergraduate and graduate students, co-leaders of the program, stood by to offer help.

young student in blue shirt building a robot
A middle school student builds a Vex IQ robot. Photo by Lydia Pritchard for Virginia Tech.

One of the graduate students, Albert Kodua, played an integral role in the creation of Project Red Rover’s space theme. “I decided to volunteer because I wanted to create something I wish I had when I was in middle school,” said Kodua. “I wanted to make a fun, engaging, and relevant theme. There’s a lot going on right now in the world of space. We wanted to model the NASA Perseverance and rover missions and simulate what the NASA engineers and scientists would do.”

Emily Altland, another graduate student who’s pursuing her Master of Science in computer science, volunteered to share her love of robotics with the middle schoolers. “My favorite part was seeing how excited the kids are about programming and then how their excitement grows each day. We were doing dismissal after the second or third day, and the students were waiting for their parents to pick them up. One of them turns to me and asks, ‘Can I code while I wait?’ It made me so grateful I decided to volunteer.”

On Thursday, the final day of the mission, parents were invited to observe demonstrations of the rover’s capabilities. The parents discovered that their students had not only built the rover, but also programmed it to be autonomous. The rovers picked up “space samples,” or red and blue blocks, while avoiding “debris,” or green blocks. Teams and their rovers competed against one another to collect the most space samples, avoid debris, and return to Earth.

Loading player for

During the concluding ceremony, Lance Collins, vice president and executive director of the Innovation Campus, congratulated the student participants for their successful completion of the four-day program and presented them with certificates. He also expressed gratitude to the program’s graduate and undergraduate volunteers and partners: AT&T; the City of Alexandria Parks, Recreation, and Cultural Activities; PARKnerships; Alexandria Renew Enterprises (AlexRenew); Nannie J Lee Memorial Recreation Center; and Center for the Enhancement in Engineering Diversity (CEED).

The middle school students were recruited from four Alexandria-area schools: George Washington Middle School, Francis C. Hammond Middle School, Jefferson Houston PreK-8 IB School, and the Patrick Henry K-8 School.

The Virginia Tech Innovation Campus K-12 Initiative, the host of the event, believes an early introduction to computer science and STEM is key to preparing a well-rounded student for a global society. Programs like Project Red Rover help to make these topics accessible, while building new pathways for students to realize and pursue postsecondary goals.

Share this story