Rival high schools' students build and compete underwater robots

pseligson@newsobserver.comJune 2, 2014 

The rivalry between Clayton and Smithfield-Selma high schools has reached new depths: the building and racing of underwater robots.

Late last month, students in the schools’ Navy Junior ROTC programs came to the Smithfield Recreation and Aquatics Center with small underwater robots they had spent months building. They plunged their creations in the SRAC pool, competing in both speed and navigating an underwater obstacle.

“It’s not something you get to do every day,” said Wesley Kirk, a freshman at Clayton High. Getting to work with his hands to build the robot was especially fun, he said.

SeaPerch, a national program funded by the U.S. Office of Naval Research, supports instruction in STEM, or science, technology, engineering and math. The SSS and Clayton students received kits from which they built their boxy robots using plastic piping, propellers for steering and pool noodles for buoyancy. They soldered the electronics themselves and connected homemade remote controls to the robots using Ethernet cables.

At first, SSS junior Macy McRory found the project intimidating. “How am I going to build this?” she asked herself.

But she learned how to build and solder circuits, and she studied how objects move in water. By the time the competition rolled around, McRory was challenging her classmates. “Mine’s going to beat yours,” she told them.

The project sparked competition but also teamwork. Students built their robots in groups, each team member with a designated task, such as piloting the robot or recording how it performed.

The schools competed first in speed. The teams had to submerge their robots and pilot them underwater for about a third of the pool’s length. Then, after crossing into the first swimmer’s lane, the robots had to surface, resubmerge and then reach the starting point without breaking the surface again.

In the second competition, instructors placed rings made of pool noodles into the water, keeping them in place with weights. Students had to pilot their robots through the rings twice.

Instructors timed the robots and disqualified any team that couldn’t stay in its lane or stay submerged. Smithfield-Selma teams won both competitions and won the overall meet with 163 points to Clayton’s 105 points.

The robots’ pilots stood at the edge of the pool but couldn’t clearly see their robots because of the way light bends in water. Their teammates stood along the side of the pool and shouted instructions: “Raise it up!” “Lower! Lower!” “Turn around!” “A little more!”

The sailing wasn’t always smooth. One robot came apart as a student pulled it out of the water. And teams had to make adjustments on the spot, cutting pool noodles off the frame to make the robot sink.

At first, Clayton High freshman Alex Ashford and his teammates couldn’t get their robot up and running.

But Ashford said he enjoyed the project. “It’s fun getting to try new stuff with ROTC,” he said. “Building was fun because you learn so much stuff about it,” he added.

The two schools were able to offer SeaPerch thanks to an $1,800 grant from the Wake Electric Cooperative Bright Ideas program, said Craig Whitaker, senior naval science instructor at SSS.

Whitaker said he doesn’t know if they will be able to offer the program next year; that will depend on funding. But if he can, Whitaker hopes to have a class for students new to the program and an advanced class for students who built a robot this year. And if the program continues, Whitaker wants to host regional meets against other schools.

Whitaker hopes SeaPerch will spark student interest in STEMs. “The intent of course is a fun way to expose them to science and technology, engineering and mathematics topics,” he said. “We build these robots in a way that they find that engineering can be fun, and they kind of learn by doing.”

Seligson: 919-836-5768

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