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Exploring planets with a rover – from home!

What links the UK’s deepest working mine with remote schools in the Scottish highlands? The answer: Remote3, a school robotics project funded by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC).

Originally designed to help students from remote schools in the Scottish Highlands and Islands access exciting science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) challenges, the project has been adapted to continue online during the coronavirus pandemic. 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, as well as the opportunity to learn about the research carried out at STFC’s Boulby Underground Laboratory. Children have worked on these from home, either individually or as part of a team communicating online.

Students have created code using applications called Scratch and MakeCode, and weekly tasks 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 to be tested live in the webinar. Experienced computer scientists, physicists and technicians from STFC and partner institutions have been on hand to answer students’ questions about coding, robots and science during the weekly sessions.

Eight weeks on, the students have developed their skills enough to tackle the final summer challenge. This two-month project 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 celebration event.

The Remote3 team combines University of Edinburgh particle physicists Dr Xin Ran Liu and Prof. Alex Murphy, with the Boulby Underground Laboratory and STFC’s Public Engagement teams, along with support from STFC’s Scientific Computing Department.  It was funded by the STFC Spark Award programme.

Xin, a scientist from the University of Edinburgh, wants to inspire the children taking part in the challenges. He says: “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 Boulby Underground Laboratory. In the build-up to final challenge, the students would have had the chance to create, develop and test the code needed to operate the rovers in teams at school, with help from a mentor from the Remote3 team.

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. When the time comes, teams from the schools will be able to control the rovers remotely and take part in a challenge to complete as many tasks as possible in a given amount of time, watching from a livestream. 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.

To take part in the Remote3 Summer Challenge, sign up online here.

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Last updated: 20 July 2020


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