Students Build Their Resume While Building Underwater Vehicles

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The SeaPerch ROV program is inspiring children the world over to develop an interest in pursuing careers in STEM fields.

Underwater wreck. Image Credit: NOAA.

Underwater wreck. Image Credit: NOAA.

Few things capture a child’s imagination quite like an old shipwreck and visions of lost gold sitting at the bottom of the ocean, just waiting to be found. This is what students in Port Angeles, Washington discovered at a summer camp held at Feiro Marine Life Center where they designed and built their own remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) for underwater exploration.

Sadly, the students didn’t actually get to look for missing gold from the SS Pacific, a steamer that sank off the coast of Cape Flattery, Washington, in 1875. However, their curiosity was definitely piqued as they researched the wreck and what goes into planning a salvage operation. The goal was to develop their own ROV missions for a final exercise held at a local swimming pool. The students had to plan a mission that could go into an underwater canyon, identify a ship, and retrieve an item with their ROV.

ROVs are constructed out of lightweight PVC pipes and affordable, easy to find parts. Feiro uses kits that can be recycled and adapted easily for different groups and skill levels.

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A Baltimore student making adjustments to an underwater ROV. Image Credit: Sea Perch

Feiro has offered several sessions of the ROV camp for the last three summers. In the fall, Rachele Brown, the center’s program and education coordinator, plans to expand the program to include a yearlong club for middle schoolers who have completed levels I and II of the camp and have an interest in learning more. ‰ÛÏThey’ll learn how to build it all from scratch, and how to troubleshoot technical problems,‰Û said Brown.

These skills will aid the students as they move toward high school. Brown hopes that the middle school students will be engaged in high school science clubs in the future. She also sees her program as sparking interest that could help train future employees for companies and marine research organizationsåÊin the region, such as Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, which is operated by Batelle in Richland, Washington. ‰ÛÏThere are companies that actually use ROVs in their work, or they would like to if they had individuals with that specialty. The program is helping get kids in our community excited to feed those local jobs,‰Û said Brown.

While Fiero’s ROV camp is small, teaching up to 16 students in a session, programs like this one play a meaningful role in getting kids excited about studying science and math, and thinking about future career options that will rely heavily on these skills.

According to The World Economic Forum’s 2011-2012 Global Competitiveness Report, technology and innovation are crucial factors in any country’s ability to adapt and thrive. In terms of global competitiveness, the United States has dropped from second to fifth place out of 142 countries since 2009. Among many of the factors creating stressors on the country’s competitive edge are higher education and training in math and science, where the United States ranked 51st.

Emily Glenn, Vita Olson and Kristin Kirkman testing their ROV's buoyancy at Feiro. Image Credit: Feiro Marine Life Center.

Emily Glenn, Vita Olson and Kristin Kirkman testing their ROV’s buoyancy at Feiro. Image Credit: Feiro Marine Life Center.

This helps explain why improving STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) curriculum and encouraging students to pursue a career in STEM fields is at the top of President Obama and the Department of Education’s agendas for education reform. Within the decade, Obama has called for an increase in college graduates in STEM fields, as well as teachers capable of steering students along these paths deemed crucial for the nation.

Responding to this push, universities, schools, and government organizations have developed programs to help stimulate enthusiasm for STEM careers.

In 1997, Harry Bohm and Vickie Jensen published a book, ‰ÛÏBuild your Own Underwater Robot: And Other Wet Projects.‰Û One of the projects in the book, SeaPerch, caught the attention of a professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who incorporated it into his curriculum at the university. Eventually, SeaPerch was developed into a larger education platform for middle- and high school-aged students.

Today, the Office of Naval Research (ONR) funds SeaPerch, and the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) manages it. The program provides materials, teacher training, and annual competitions where students from all over the country compete in the SeaPerch Challenge.

According to Susan Nelson, executive director of SeaPerch in Alexandria, Virginia, the program started with 750 students in two school districts in 2011. Since then, the program has reached more than 200,000 children. While there isn’t a robust program in every state, SeaPerch is continuing to expand each year. The program is international, with kits and training delivered to England, France, Korea, and Russia. In the United States, high-poverty schools are eligible to receive grants for the initial purchase of kits and tools. Once a school receives a grant to get started, SeaPerch encourages them to reach out to local STEM companies in their region for additional funding to maintain and grow the program.

Building an ROV can teach students about a wide range of subjects including ship and robot design, engineering, electronics, propulsion, and data collection. Students also learn about what can be accomplished with teamwork, and they get a sense of what types of career opportunities exist for students with strong math and science backgrounds.

SeaPerch tracks what the students are learning with surveys delivered before and after building an ROV. ‰ÛÏFor the past five years, we have seen an increase in students studying STEM, and an increase in self-efficacy. A student might say I’m comfortable leading a team where they weren’t before the course,‰Û said Nelson.

In 2011, Maryland’s Montgomery County Public Schools partnered with the U.S. Navy to incorporate SeaPerch into its science curriculum. Each year, 7th graders in the district spend nine weeks learning how to build ROVs. The first year, learning was anchored in examinations of the BP oil spill, which dumped more than 210 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. Students learned that ROVs were being used in the cleanup, so they were able to see the real world applications of the science they were learning in the classroom.

Today, they still using the oil spill to ground the coursework.

The Navy sends engineers into the schools to work with the kids, and the project culminates in a trip to the Navy’s Carderock Division facility where the students get to test out their ROVs in a tank normally used to test submarines and other Naval equipment.

Amy Gensemer oversees the district’s science, technology, and engineering education; she believes that it is crucial to start energizing students while they are young, and she encourages a focus on diversity as well. ‰ÛÏWe want kids, particularly minority and female students, to feel personally competent in STEM,‰Û said Gensemer. Historically, women and people of color have been dramatically underrepresented in STEM fields.

Brown, from Feiro Marine Life Center, also sees the importance of connecting with a diverse group of students, ‰ÛÏA young girl came up to me and told me she was really worried about this camp because it was never anything she thought she would be interested in; now she wants to build her own ROV for a science fair project. Seeing kids inspired by something far from what they ever thought they would do is really exciting.‰Û

Update added on 1st Feb 2020: For people who are interested in taking up a career in STEM, here is a resource from bankrate, that guides readers through the initial financial barriers of switching to a career in STEM, tactics to overcome those barriers, and why the career change is worth the investment in the long run. Bankrate also offers valuable scholarships and grants specifically for women in STEM.