Astronaut's out-of-this-world experience to help kick off Berkshire Robotics Challenge

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LENOX — A record-setting astronaut will help launch the 20th Berkshire Robotics Challenge on Saturday.

Robert Trisk, a 28-year veteran of the Canadian Space Agency who retired in 2011, is scheduled to speak to open the youth technology competition, at 9 a.m. at Lenox Memorial Middle and High School.

Organizers expect 130 elementary- and middle-school-age students from 17 teams to battle for four rounds. The top eight scorers will advance to the quarterfinals of an NCAA basketball-style playoff format.

This year's challenge, "Into Orbit," asks students to build, test and program an autonomous robot using Lego Mindstorms technology to solve a series of space-themed missions, such as growing food in space, fighting muscle atrophy in orbit and collecting samples on a tabletop "playing field."

Trisk, who spoke at the inaugural challenge in 2000, is one of his country's top astronauts, holding the Canadian records for the longest spaceflight — 187 days, 20 hours — and the most time spent in space, 204 days, 18 hours.

His other crowning achievements include flying aboard the space shuttle Columbia in 1996 with six international crew members as part of the Life and Microgravity Spacelab Mission. The 17-day mission was devoted to the study of life and materials science.

In 2009, Trisk launched aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft to the International Space Station. There, the crew performed cutting-edge interdisciplinary research from around the world, robotic operations, and maintenance and repair work of station systems and experiments.

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In those past two decades, technology has rapidly evolved, and today's students are on the "cusp of an entirely new age," according to Stephen Boyd, CEO of Boyd Technologies in Lee and chairman of the Berkshire Innovation Center in Pittsfield.

"The Fourth Industrial Revolution is upon us," he said in prepared remarks. "Industry 4.0 is expected to drive huge opportunities for growth through systems that interconnect the digital, physical and biological worlds."

The lead supporters of the event are the BIC, Berkshire Community College, with major underwriting support from General Dynamics, and the Feigenbaum Foundation.

The Berkshire Robotics Challenge is based on the FIRST Lego League competition, which encourages kids to think like scientists and engineers.

"Team members learn to apply science, technology, engineering and math concepts, as well as their imagination, to solve a problem," stated longtime organizer Denise Johns, director of corporate training at BCC.

"It's a great exercise in developing critical thinking and basic STEM applications, as well as teamwork, sportsmanship, and they have fun doing it."

Dick Lindsay can be reached at and 413-496-6233.


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