By Edward Lundquist
For Northwest Asian Weekly
Two naval officers and a little build-it-yourself underwater robot are helping to create a new generation of scientists and engineers.
Ensigns Natalya Aoki and Patrick Cooper, recent graduates of the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., said, “[The] SeaPerch, [a] remotely operated underwater vehicle (ROV), can teach valuable lessons — from grade school to grad school.”
Aoki graduated with a degree in astronautical engineering, a track of the aerospace engineering program, and a minor in Russian. She is also a graduate of Garfield High School. She will be going to the Navy’s flight school for training.
As part of the Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) program, an outreach program at the Naval Academy, Aoki and Cooper helped train teachers and made an instructional video on how to build and incorporate SeaPerch ROVs in their classrooms.
“SeaPerch is an underwater robot made of everyday materials such as PVC pipes, DC motors, propellers and shaft adapters, wires, film canisters, and toilet bowl wax. The three motors allow it to maneuver up and down, and left and right,” said Aoki. “We use it as a teaching tool to convey principles such as buoyancy, stability, electricity, and electrical and mechanical engineering.”
Aoki and Cooper teamed with students at Lafayette College in Easton, Pa. The students were taking a course called envisioning environmental science, taught by Prof. Arthur Kney, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, and Prof. David Husic, professor of chemistry, to teach science fundamentals to elementary school students.
According to Kney, “The course is focused on arming students with academically sound tools that will prepare them to better understand our globally connected environment, to prepare them to be better stewards of the environment, and to develop the necessary knowledge base to assess and respond to the impact of the global environmental issues that accompany a 21st century lifestyle.”
Envisioning environmental science is an interdisciplinary examination of environmental science by exploring New Zealand. The 22 Lafayette college students shared what they learned with the elementary school students from Martinsburg, Pa. Through webcasts, the Lafayette students could explain such topics as wetland and water quality, climate change, green building, and Maori culture to the elementary school students back in Pennsylvania.
“SeaPerch was a part of the connection between the elementary school in Pennsylvania and the class at Lafayette College,” said Cooper. “Natalya and I went to the elementary school and held a workshop with high school students and teachers, so that they would be prepared to build the SeaPerch with the elementary kids.”
Because of their involvement in helping the Lafayette students with SeaPerch, the two naval officers were invited to accompany them to New Zealand.
According to Aoki, the premise of the trip was for the students of the envisioning environmental engineering course to get hands-on experience with what they were learning and share it, via real time video chats, with the third graders they were working with in Pennsylvania.
Learning by teaching
“I like to use the idea of students teaching students,” said Kney. “You don’t really learn something until you teach it. Teaching to younger kids is fun for college students because of the interest level, excitement, and wonder they bring to the table. It is a win-win situation. Our college kids get a new perspective with regard to what they are learning and it helps them better understand what it is [that] they are learning. In the end, we can help teachers with science and engineering.”
“We went to a geothermal park, climbed a glacier, stayed with the Maori people for a few days and learned about their culture, swam with Hector’s dolphins, hiked, and learned about the rivers and pollution,” Aoki said.
“Whenever we got the chance, we put a SeaPerch in the water and took video to send back to the elementary students,” Aoki continued.
She said the most gratifying aspect of SeaPerch is seeing young students build a SeaPerch from everyday parts and end up with an underwater robot that they can take complete ownership of.
More than a toy
Cooper states that SeaPerch is more than a toy. He enjoys watching the children having fun with something that they actually built with their own hands. “They may have thought they couldn’t do something so complicated on their own.”
“The fun part is helping students think of a name for their Perch,” Cooper said. “It is always good to be reminded of the creativity and imagination that children have.”
According to Traci L. Shoemaker, a reading specialist at the Martinsburg Elementary School, students have different abilities and interests, so it’s a challenge to reach every student. The SeaPerch project connected with them on a variety of levels. “For many of my girls, they loved having the undivided attention of ‘cool’ older students, and seeing them involved in a project that required the use of power tools and wiring made them realize that this kind of science project is something they really can do.”
“The Navy people who brought the SeaPerch kits were viewed as superheroes,” Shoemaker said.
“They did a great job explaining what the project was all about and also what the Naval Academy was like. The students really enjoyed the workshops they attended at the Naval Academy and loved the challenges of ‘driving’ their SeaPerch in the tanks.”
With a current shortfall of American engineers and scientists, Aoki said it is crucial to excite young students in the science, technology, engineering, and math disciplines. “SeaPerch addresses this issue quite well and also works as a great team building exercise.”
STEM education is an important issue for the Navy and the nation, said Rear Adm. Nevin Carr, Chief of Naval Research. “We need to reach young students at an earlier age, get them inspired to careers in science, technology, engineering, and math, support them as they get into college and graduate school, and provide them with careers that will be there waiting for them when they come out the other end.” ♦
Captain Edward Lundquist, USN (Ret.), is a science writer based in Arlington, Va.
He can be reached at email@example.com.