Underwater robotics challenges students

OGDEN — Build an unmanned watercraft to send to the bottom of Lake Powell, in search of a plane that went down while researching ruins on the lake bed. Once there, open the plane’s fuselage door to retrieve the black box, deploy oil-absorbing canisters, and collect rock samples from the lake floor.

That was the scenario given to teams in the SeaPerch Northern Utah Underwater Competition last week.

The reality was scaled down quite a bit — students had to build a Remotely Operated Vehicle and send it to the bottom of a swimming pool, where they would use it to open a cage, retrieve a small white box, deploy plastic rings and pick up rocks.

More than 300 students tested their robotics and engineering skills in the SeaPerch competition, held March 10 in the pool of Weber State University’s Swenson Gym.

“These kids had to build this ROV, they had to practice with it. They learned engineering, technology, they learned about electricity, and about neutral buoyancy,” said Debbie Roach, STEM outreach coordinator for Hill Air Force Base.

The plane-crash scenario and hands-on experience were both important.

“We’re taking this learning out of textbooks and giving it a purpose to real life so these kids can actually see why they’re going through this,” Roach said.

Roach and her Hill Air Force Base STEM Outreach program partnered with WSU’s College of Applied Science & Technology and Brigham Young University to put on SeaPerch Competitions. The idea is to encourage kids to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math. Like many other Utah employers, HAFB suffers from a shortage of engineers. Unlike other employers, HAFB can’t import engineers from out of the country.

“They have to be U.S. citizens,” Roach said. “We’ve got to get students interested at a younger age.”

This is the third SeaPerch competition held in the area. The first event, at BYU, hosted 52 teams; last year, the number grew to 156. About 200 teams are competing at BYU this year, and a competition was added at WSU to handle the growing popularity. Winners from both qualifiers will go on to compete at nationals.

The maximum SeaPerch score is 1,000. The pool portion of the competition is worth up to 700 points. The remaining points come from a poster presentation teams put together to showcase their work.

“It’s their start to getting used to what an engineering notebook is,” said Roach, explaining that the presentations have to include information about what the students did, what they learned, and ideas for improving their design. “You have a process, limited resources and a time limit … and you have to design, test, re-evaluate and start over — that’s what we want kids to learn while they’re here.”

Most of the students participating in the SeaPerch Northern Utah Underwater Competition are in junior high, although there are a few sixth-grade and high school teams. About two-thirds of the teams are from Weber School District’s MESA (Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement) programs, which often serve low-income and minority students.

Matthew Patterson, Weber School District’s science curriculum specialist, was looking for a project that would excite students and help the after-school clubs grow. That’s when he heard about SeaPerch.

“It caught fire,” he said, adding that MESA attendance went from 100 to 400, and the district wound up with 60 ROV teams. “I’ve had teachers say, ‘I normally couldn’t get them to stay for MESA club — now I can’t get them to leave MESA.’ ”

Ninth-grade students Jordan Taylor, Savannah Dabb, Becca Cope and Sydnee Snow created a team at Rocky Mountain Junior High in West Haven.

“You have to build it yourself,” Snow said of the ROV. “It’s very hard, and you have to think through everything. If it’s wrong, you have to take it apart and redo it.”

Creating a robotic vehicle that can move through water, without sinking or floating to the top, is difficult according to Taylor.

“The water makes it fun,” said Dabb, adding that it’s also a challenge to make the the ROV waterproof.

Seventh-graders Hayes Carlson, Holden Pollock and Logan Beaty formed a team at Sand Ridge Junior High in Roy.

“We started by making the control box, then the tether and frame,” said Beaty, who also believed buoyancy was one of the biggest challenges.“It had to float, but not too much.”

The Sand Ridge Junior High students, who named their ROV Agua Pollo, said it didn’t complete the entire mission in the time given. They were only able to open the cage door, which was the first step.

“We did knock a couple of rocks off,” said Carlson.

The students plan to compete again next year, and they understand that it’s about more than fun.

“I think this could help with careers,” Carlson said.

That’s exactly what Roach likes to hear.

“It doesn’t do anybody any good if I see the these kids once, and never again,” she said.

Teams that compete in the future can learn from this year’s competition, and compete in a division that allows them to make modifications to the standard ROV design. There will also be new scenarios and tasks each year.

Sand Ridge Junior High School teacher Brad Gathercole said he was proud of what his students accomplished, and he plans to bring them back again.

“Hopefully, we’’ll take the same robots, and make them better for next year. Now that we don’t have to spend so much time actually building them, we can focus on design,” he said.

Winning the competition is a great goal, but Patterson is excited about the learning process that took place prior to the big event.

“We did a scrimmage the other day at the Marshall White Center,” he said. “It was so fun to watch the kids drop their robots into the water for the first time. They were failing — it either sunk to the bottom or would float to the top — and they would have to pull them out and problem-solve, and work together to come up with a plan and readjust. … It’s a process of discovery, and working through those difficult challenges.”

Eventually, they would get it right, and there would be cheers around the pool, Patterson said.

“It’s just another project to get kids to be thinkers and problems solvers,” he said. “These are the skills we really need to give kids to be successful in life.”

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