Hayes NASA app team aiming for Houston


For the second year in a row, a team of students at Hayes High School will have a virtual interview with NASA scientists this month as part of an app development contest that could earn the team a trip to the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Last year, the team from Hayes was one of the groups selected to visit Houston and give a presentation to NASA about its app. This year’s team is comprised of freshman Isaac Highman, junior Nat Zahniser, junior Manas Paranjape, senior Grace Metz, and senior Rosemary Cranston, who was on the team last year.

Cranston said the project is very similar to last year and involves creating an app to guide a rover around the South Pole of the Moon, including 10 stops to communicate with NASA. Cranston said for the project she analysed data about the surface of the Moon to find the right landing spot.

“NASA has done so much more research in the last year. I was about to find a lot more landing spots than last year,” Cranston said. “They gave us a lot to work with.”

Cranston said that since she is the only member from last year’s team, she feels some pressure to succeed.

“We knew we had more work we needed to accomplish, but we were also super excited,” Cranston said Thursday. “I know I’ve been through it before, and we can do it again.”

The team began working on the project in October and submitted the app in December. The students learned last Friday that they would be speaking to NASA scientists for the interview portion of the competition on Feb. 6.

“It was unbelievable,” Highman said, adding he was initially nervous but felt better after their mock interview Thursday. “(The mock interview) was like tension breaking. I didn’t think we’d make it past the app submitted round. Now that we actually have a chance, it feels real.”

Highman said he worked on the app’s pathfinding algorithm and helped integrate all the components of the app together.

Likewise, Zahniser said the mock interview was helpful preparation.

“It went over really well,” Zahniser said. “I do feel confident that we’ll do well on Tuesday … (But there’s) a lot of nerves there as well.”

Zahniser said he worked on the rover’s wayfinding and programmed it to find paths of least resistance and as few steep upward inclines as possible.

Metz created a color map to represent slopes in the terrain in the app and designed the GUI, a process she described as “making all the buttons do what their supposed to do.”

“(Making it to the interview) felt like we got hit by a train … but in a good way,” Metz joked. “I’m an anxious person in general, so this doesn’t help, but I am excited to get to speak to real NASA employees and share about this project.”

In contrast to his teammates, Paranjape said he felt “pure excitement” after the announcement that they had made it to the next round of competition. He said he was in charge of all the calculations and waypoint algorithms in the app. He jokingly encouraged his teammates to be more stoic after their mock interview Thursday.

“Next destination: Houston,” Paranjape said confidently.

The team’s advisor and Hayes math teacher Joanne Meyer said the team had “a lot of work” to do in a very short time after they learned they were advancing, including answering 18 questions about their project in just four days and preparing for their interview.

“It’s a very different group (than last year),” Meyer said. “It all boils down to what they want to do. They did it and it was rough. I wasn’t quite sure it was going to get done, but the app is good.”

Meyer is excited for the team and said the students are learning more than just programming skills in the project.

“It’s so worth it,” Meyer said. “It’s so worth it to see the growth in these guys. Not just the programming and coding skills, but the presentation skills, team-building. That’s always fascinating to watch.”

Meyer said the team’s interview is Tuesday, and the students will find out if they advance at the end of the month.

Glenn Battishill can be reached at 740-413-0903.

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