Underwater robotics program aims to get kids into science

Underwater robots operated by schoolchildren invaded a hotel pool in Grand Cayman this week. The demonstration was part of an educational initiative called SeaPerch, designed to get kids interested in a future career in STEM fields. 

Career opportunities in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) are plentiful and high-paying, but not enough students are choosing to go into these fields, according to SeaPerch Executive Director Susan Giver Nelson. 

A program such as SeaPerch, which teaches basic engineering and science concepts by giving students and teachers the resources they need to build an underwater, remotely operated vehicle (ROV), “can change your mind if you’re not sure about STEM and help us find the next generation of STEM professionals,” Ms. Giver Nelson said. 

In Cayman, some are hoping that SeaPerch will help get kids to see that there are job opportunities beyond the financial and tourism industries, and that there are all kinds of STEM-related careers available in the maritime industry. That’s why the Cayman Island’s chapter of the Women’s International Shipping and Trading Association reached out to SeaPerch to see if the program could be brought here. 

To give students and teachers a feel for the program, SeaPerch hosted sessions Wednesday and Thursday at the Grand Cayman Beach Suites for classes from several secondary schools. After hearing about STEM careers and the SeaPerch curriculum, students were given the opportunity to drive the robots in the hotel’s pool and to try to manipulate the robots to pick up yellow rings in the water. Students also got a hands-on lesson in robot building. 

“We had them assemble a couple of parts just to get a feel for it, and we educate them on a couple of concepts related to Archimedes and buoyancy,” Ms. Giver Nelson said. 

The robots are built from pre-cut kits provided by SeaPerch and include PVC pipe, wire, small motors, film canisters, wax, switches, small propellers and circuit board components. It typically takes about 10 hours for students to build and test a SeaPerch robot. Some schools choose to take a whole semester on the project, incorporating other activities and teaching units with the robot-building. 

Although SeaPerch is based in the United States, it has been implemented in 10 countries. To date, more than 250,000 students have participated in the program, according to SeaPerch. 

Sherice Arman, president of Women’s International Shipping and Trading Association, said teachers have already been asking her how to jump-start the program in schools in Cayman. 

“I couldn’t have expected it to go any better,” Ms. Arman said of the sessions. “I think the level of excitement from the kids is tremendous. This is exactly what we were hoping for.” 

Once the program is implemented, the next steps will be to organize a local competition and to send a winning team to the annual national SeaPerch competition in the U.S. 

At the competition, students get to put their robots to the test by completing various tasks, which are often simulations of real-world tasks underwater that ROVs might complete. For instance, at one national competition, students were asked to cap a well of spewing ping-pong balls and gather them with their robots, simulating how an ROV might cap an oil well during a spill. 

“I really expect that we’re going to have some kind of local competition going amongst the schools soon,” Ms. Arman said. 

If there is a local competition, one team to look out for might be composed of students from the Year 10 electronics class at John Gray High School. As the SeaPerch session was winding down Wednesday afternoon, students Sean Evans, John Tatum and their friends were already brainstorming ways of modifying and improving the robot by adding arms and using solar power. They have their sights set on going to the national competition in Baton Rouge in May 2016. 

“We will be heading to nationals,” Evans said.  

Naval architect Bruce Rosenblatt tosses a SeaPerch robot into the water as students from John Gray High School prepare to drive the device. - Photo: Taneos Ramsay
Naval architect Bruce Rosenblatt tosses a SeaPerch robot into the water as students from John Gray High School prepare to drive the device. – Photo: Taneos Ramsay