Students build and test underwater robots

Sadie Miller, 12, left, and Madison Macfarlane, 13, right, students at Dixon Middle School in Provo, laugh together near their team's presentation board after competing in the underwater robot competition at the Lehi Legacy Center on Thursday, March 14 2013. BYU students worked with middle and elementary school kids throughout the semester, teaching them about engineering and helping them build the robots. SARAH WEISER/Daily Herald

Imagine doing a slalom course -- underwater -- and you will see what SeaPerch is like.

The first SeaPerch underwater challenge in the state of Utah took place at the Lehi Legacy Center Thursday and apparently met its goal of engaging students in science and engineering.

More than 70 teams from Utah, most from Utah County, participated in the challenge put on by the SeaPerch program at Brigham Young University. The program's website indicates it is "an innovative underwater robotics program where students are able to build an ROV (remotely operated vehicle) from low-cost components while following a curriculum that teaches basic science and engineering concepts. Throughout the SeaPerch program students will learn science/engineering concepts, problem solving, teamwork, and are exposed to exciting careers in STEM-related fields." Those are science, technology, engineering and math fields.

Tadd Truscott from BYU oversaw the program.

"I applied for a grant almost two years ago," he said. "It was for different kinds of SeaPerch initiatives. The idea was for undergraduate students to mentor middle-schoolers." Through that mentoring, they shared their excitement for the fields and got younger students interested in pursuing them.

John Ledbetter, a ninth-grade student at Mt. Nebo Junior High School in Payson, didn't have his career choice affected by the competition -- he already made up his mind to be a robotics engineer. He did learn from the project, however, including how it was affected by the water.

"I learned how difficult it is to do some courses when you can't see," he said. "I entered it so I could learn and see if I could actually be a robotics engineer, test my abilities."

Micaiah Pickering was one of his teammates. He was making mental revisions to their entry moments after they had their turn in the water.

"It was fun," he said. "We probably should have practiced with the arms. I wonder how it would have turned out if we had used coat hangers."

Tyler Christensen also thought a different approach might have worked better to gather the weighted diving rings.

"I think the best thing we could have done was to scoop up the rings off the bottom instead of off the rack," he said.

All three agreed they would like to do it again.

Schools began their work in October, and the mentors worked with the students on a weekly basis starting in January. The teams were given robot kits that included PVC pipes, motors, some wire, some waterproofing material and pool noodles for buoyancy.

"The kids built their own devices," Truscott said. The design was completely up to them. They knew the size of the openings of the slalom-like course through which they needed to maneuver and built their robots accordingly.

Entrants were from Davis County on the north to Mt. Nebo Junior High on the south. Most were sixth- and seventh-graders, but they ranged from ninth-graders to second-graders.

Graduate student Randy Hurd and research assistant Kit Hacking assisted Truscott in putting on the event.

"I helped design the competition," Hacking said. "Seventy percent of the competition is in the water. They go down, take their ROV and weave in a slalom-like course, have to follow their tether back out. They also pick up diving rings and bring them back to the surface." The teams had five minutes to set up, 10 minutes to do the course and five minutes to clean up. If they finished the course in less than 10 minutes, they received bonus points.

Their score also included 30 percent for a poster project, which had an 250-500 word research paper about ROVs.

Hacking knows about the project from the ground up.

"I have been competing since I was a freshman in high school," he said. He grew up in Washington and is studying electrical engineering at BYU. "I was internationally ranked against other teams from around the world. I have experience doing that and making sure about a lot of little things." He said he was happy to watch the students.

"It is great to see the kids succeed," he said. "The learning they get from it, how excited they are."

He has seen it make a change in some of the students.

"I have seen so many gifted kids go from not doing much in school because they are bored to getting so excited," he said, adding that he overheard students say "school was boring until I did this," and "I see why we do math, why we do this."

"Their favorite subject changes from lunch to math," Hacking said. "The sky is the limit. We have second-graders doing things even some of their parents haven't done before."

Darwin Deming teaches science at Mt. Nebo and told how the school became involved.

"Last year I wanted the science department to have a science club, but it didn't happen," he said. "We tried again this year and kept it low-key. The first day of the group, only one person showed up. Then one person saw a flier about this competition and we decided to try it." The interest in the after-school group increased immediately.

"It was a lot of work but the results have been amazing," Deming said. "The kids have been doing so awesome. After it was announced we had 55 students show up. Today we have 40 active students in 14 separate groups."

Eighth-grader Christian West is one of those students.

"Underwater robotics is fun," he said. "It felt like a remote control car with bubbles." He already has plans for next year.

"I want to do it again," he said. "I would change the flotation so it would be easier for it to stay in one spot."

Deming praised the program and its results.

"I am really proud of them," he said. "It has been an awesome program, a STEM-based program. It helps prepare students to be future scientists and future engineers."

There is a question, however, about a competition next year.

This year's competition, the first in Utah, turned out to be one of the biggest in the United States, Truscott said.

"We had a grant this year, which will end in July," he said. "We are trying to figure out ways to keep it rolling. We may be looking for sponsors. It only costs between $500 and $1,000 per school per year. The real idea is to promote STEM -- science, technology, engineering and math -- to have more students who want to become engineers."


1: Canyon View Team 2 -- 1,416

2: Mt. Nebo Team 3 "Attractive Avengers" -- 1,241

3: Mt. Nebo Team 12 "Cobras" -- 1,157

4: Mt. Nebo Team 7 "Freshies" -- 1,091

5: Canyon View Team 1 -- 1,081

-- Barbara Christiansen covers news in American Fork ˜ government, schools, residents, business and more.
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