It’s easy to get depressed about the state of the world, but see Zero Gravityand you’ll feel a good deal more optimistic. The documentary follows a  diverse group of bright middle-school students as they participate in a summer program that teaches them how to write code for satellites, culminating in a competition run by an astronaut aboard the International Space Station. None of the kids has coded before, and the way they quickly learn and overcome setbacks to succeed is nothing short of inspirational.

The program, called Zero Robotics, has been run by NASA and the MIT Space Systems Laboratory since 2009, and was inspired by the floating droid that zaps Luke Skywalker while he is training with his lightsaber in Star Wars: A New Hope. MIT came up with similar-looking SPHERES – Synchronized Position Hold Engage Reorient Experimental Satellites – that are about the size of a volleyball. Middle-school teams from across the country write code to direct the SPHERES to do various tasks within the context of a game, and those with the best results get to upload their code to the actual SPHERES aboard the ISS to see how they perform during a live competition.

The students in Zero Gravity live in San Jose, California, where those not in the tech industry are being priced out of their neighborhoods. That motivates teacher Tanner Marcoida to take on the project, even though he doesn’t know that much about coding himself. He wants his students to have the chance to stay in the area. The kids are apprehensive but eager to learn, and they quickly catch on. The film shows them working through math problems and graphing the results, and their level of knowledge and expertise is impressive.

Their teamwork is even more impressive. They have to collaborate on every step. One student says that everyone on the team is good at something different, and the project requires all of them working together to solve a problem. That’s a lesson that will stand them in good stead whether or not they go on to the STEM careers they envision.

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