NASA SwarmathonMay 5, 2017—CSU Channel Islands (CSUCI) Computer Science students who placed third in the nation in the Second Annual NASA Swarmathon competition will demonstrate how they developed their winning algorithm during the SAGE Research Conference Saturday.

The NASA Swarmathon team traveled to NASA Kennedy Space Center in Florida for the competition, which took place April 18 through 21. The CSUCI Swarmathon team, whose motto was “We can log in!” were competing against 19 other college teams across the nation.

Each team was given the task of developing an algorithm that would power a swarm of sample-collecting robots on Mars. NASA is using this contest to crowd source effective approaches from universities, which could be used on upcoming missions to Mars.

The competition was open to Minority Serving Institutions across the nation, who had to compete for a spot in the April competition.

Under the guidance of Assistant Professor of Computer Science Jason Isaacs, Ph.D., Computer Science students volunteered their Friday afternoons all year to develop a search algorithm that would power a swarm of robots to pick up a sample in a mechanical claw, then take it back to a central spot in the red planet.  Computer Science Lecturer Kevin Scrivnor and graduate student Nicholas Dolan-Stern also mentored the team.

After a nail-biter tie-breaker round that got them into the semi-finals, the team won third place. First place and a $5,000 prize went to Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute in New Mexico and second place and a $3,000 prize went to the University of Houston. CSUCI’s team won a trophy shaped like Mars and $1,000.

The team was also awarded $200 from NASA engineers and competition organizers for “Best Technical Report,” a significant win, Isaacs said.

“I am so incredibly proud of our computer science students,” said President Erika D. Beck. “Their countless hours of hard work and determination really paid off. They are shining examples of what we like to call the ‘CI Way.’”

Team member and Computer Science major Luis Torres, 23, admits he was in shock.

“I honestly feel amazed,” Torres said. “The fact that we made it to the next round and then the semi-finals and third place? It took our breath away!”

While they were there, the students got to see the launch of the Atlas 5 rocket, which carried a supply ship to the International Space Station. Many of the students had not seen Florida before, to say nothing of seeing a space launch.

“When they’re ready for liftoff, the ground shakes,” said Crystian Marron, 21, a Computer Science junior. “There is a loud sound and it vibrates all the trees and leaves! It’s so loud! It’s like hearing thunder in the distance.”

Marron said placing in the top three in the nation was “the greatest feeling I’ve had in my entire life.”

“Everyone in the competition felt it was otherworldly,” Torres added. “It made me so proud to be a Dolphin. And we had the most girls on our team compared to the other teams that went. We not only encourage minority students but females who want to pursue computer science.”

Their mentor was thrilled with the win, and with the way the students conducted themselves.

“I am extremely proud of our students, not just for their performance in the competition, but for how well they have represented CSUCI during the entire journey,” Isaacs said.

Isaacs said he definitely plans to enter the next Swarmathon team in the 2018 competition.

If you would like to see how the robots work, the 9th Annual SAGE Research competition is from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the North Quad on the CSUCI campus.

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