Getting their feet wet with robotics

Program teaches students how to construct devices to sample water, take photographs

August 10, 2008|By Susan Gvozdas | Susan Gvozdas,Special to The Sun

There is nothing simple about building an underwater robot to probe for salinity or look for water creatures. Wires come loose. Cameras fall off. Measuring string sinks to the bottom.

"It's fun, but it's kind of frustrating," said Edwin Pena, who will enter eighth grade at Annapolis Middle School this month.

Edwin and a dozen other rising seventh through ninth-graders spent the past two weeks building underwater devices made of PVC pipes, duct tape and small motors. The students sent the crude Remote Operating Vehicles, or ROVs, on missions to collect water samples and take pictures. The students are interested in math and science, and are likely candidates for the Anne Arundel County's STEM Magnet High School program. STEM provides an intense focus on science, technology, engineering and math.

The first STEM Magnet program will open this fall at North County High School in Glen Burnie. Next year, it will open at South River High School in Edgewater. Teachers in South River's feeder middle schools wanted to start getting students ready now for the program, said Karen Fowler, a STEM resource teacher for the county school system.

"We're trying to build up excitement," she said.

To get into a STEM Magnet, rising ninth-graders will be required to take a Summer Bridge program, Fowler said. The robotics program is a pilot.

The program was developed by Bob Wilson, a retired engineer who founded the engineering club at Central Middle School. Sara Veinbergs, a chemistry teacher at South River High School, taught the program.

The underwater robotics program has its roots in efforts by the U.S. Navy to nurture youngsters into careers in naval architecture and marine engineering, fields that are attracting fewer and fewer job candidates, Wilson said. Wilson, who works as a consultant for the Navy, formerly worked for the Naval Surface Warfare Center, Carderock Division.

Because of his naval experience, Wilson pushed for a similar program with county officials. He hopes that this program will be picked up by the county and integrated into Sea Perch, the Navy's ROV program for middle and high school students. The Office of Naval Research contributed $1,040 to buy equipment.

"I think this is an incredible two-week experience, and it's real-world engineering," Wilson said.

South River High School has an established robotics program, but this is the first time the school has used ROVs in this way, Veinbergs said.

"This is a great tie-in," she said.

Students spent the first few days learning about equipment the Navy uses and learning some of the problems that marine scientists try to solve. Then students chose a problem to solve and designed a robot to find the answer.

Edwin and his two teammates chose to test for water salinity at different depths. They cut PVC pipes and put duct tape around each joint to seal it. They installed a cup with a removable lid to collect the water. They then installed a fan that would cause the device to sink or rise depending on the way the blades turned.

They ran into some problems, Edwin said. The wiring to control the fan was done incorrectly, so the fan would only turn in one direction. Each time they needed to move the robot, they had to switch wires to get the fan to turn the opposite way.

Still, the robot seemed to work. When the team members lowered it to the right depth, they jerked a cord, removing the lid on the water cup. Once they brought the device to the surface, they could collect a sample. They measured the depth with another cord, knotted off in foot-long sections. They had to redo it when one of the team members accidentally dropped it into the water.

The students got to test and tweak their robots during the first week in the pool at Central Special School in Edgewater. Some students ran into trouble during the second week, however, when they sank their robots into the murky Rhode River off the dock at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center.

Sienna Creech and Kate Kindig, rising eighth-graders at Central Middle, had to improvise when they discovered they couldn't see anything with their underwater camera. They had to attach a flashlight to improve visibility. Their challenge was to record how the size and number of barnacles attached to the dock pilings varied at different levels.

Despite the camera falling off at one point, their ROV was the only one that worked consistently throughout the program, Veinbergs said.

Sienna and Kate were in Wilson's engineering club and were excited to come to the camp after receiving fliers for it at their school. Both said they enjoyed the experience.

"I like the fact that we get to do it ourselves instead of listening to a teacher like we're a baby and can't do it," Sienna said.

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