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SeaPerch Challenge gives city kids an underwater learning adventure

April 2012

It can be a long way from the streets of Philadelphia to exploring the world’s oceans.

Student tests SeaPerch ROV

Maritime Academy cadet Alex Garcia gives a SeaPerch ROV a small-scale sea trial.

But it’s a short walk from downtown to the Delaware River, where maritime commerce and shipbuilding go back centuries. The USS Philadelphia had her keel laid down here in 1798. The Philadelphia Navy Yard, the nation’s first navy yard, was established in 1801 - and is still in operation today as the Aker Philadelphia Shipyard. In the mid-1800s, Philadelphia’s docks were crowded with whaling and merchant ships. During World War II, ships sailed from Philadelphia to challenge a gauntlet of Nazi U-boats that lurked at the mouth of Delaware Bay. Today, much of the Northeast’s fruit, coffee, cocoa, and other cargo passes through Philadelphia ports. The maritime tradition here runs deep.

So when Dr. Ann G. Waiters was planning a public charter school for the School District of Philadelphia, choosing a maritime theme for it was easy. The Maritime Academy Charter School (MACHS), which serves nearly 800 students from grades 4 through 12, was founded in 2004. MACHS provides its students - known as “cadets” - with a rigorous academic program featuring a maritime twist. Students learn about maritime careers from mentors, as well as through job shadowing and internships, and go on to gain acceptance to junior colleges, universities, and maritime trade schools. It’s one of only a few programs of its kind in the United States.

In 2010, MACHS launched a Marine Technologies Lab. The project was a cooperative effort among CEO Dr. Waiters; Principal Ed Poznek; Captain Art Sulzer; and the Board of Trustees, chaired by Eugene Mattioni Esq. The Marine Technologies Lab course seemed to be a perfect fit for a program called SeaPerch.

“We wanted to introduce the underlying engineering concepts, technologies, tools, and safety involved in building an underwater remotely operated vehicle,” explained Mark D’Arcy, a marine engineer and instructor at the Calhoon MEBA Engineering School in Easton, Maryland. “Then design, construct, test, and improve a SeaPerch ROV, and compete with it in the 2011 Annual Greater Philadelphia SeaPerch Challenge.” D’Arcy travels each week from his home in Maryland to teach at MACHS.

Students test ROV wiring with a digital multimeter

Cadets Henry Ryder and Iman Robinson use a digital multimeter (DMM) to wring out the wiring of a SeaPerch.

A sea what?

What’s a SeaPerch? It’s a miniature underwater remotely operated vehicle (ROV) that works like the big ROVs used in countless deep sea projects: seeking out underwater life, photographing the wreck of the Titanic, and dealing with the disastrous Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

For students interested in electrical design, construction, or testing, this is the fun stuff. In the SeaPerch program, students plan and build a small ROV, then compete against other teams to complete underwater tasks. They learn the basic knowledge and skills involved in the design, construction, and testing of ships and submarines; their electrical and propulsion systems; controls; testing; and marine engineering concepts. It introduces students to career possibilities in naval engineering; naval architecture; electrical design and construction; marine transportation; and physics. SeaPerch was developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sea Grant Program in 2003.

The program is supported by the US Office of Naval Research, the Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA), and American Society of Naval Engineers (ASNE). According to the SeaPerch website, “the US has fallen from 3rd to 17th in the world in the number of college graduates in engineering programs. In the US, only 5 percent of science degrees are awarded in engineering, as compared with 50 percent in China.” By introducing students to science through hands-on activities, SeaPerch aims to boost the nation’s strength in engineering and technology.

The challenge starts with a $124 SeaPerch kit that includes everything needed to build an ROV: plastic pipe, 12V dc thruster motors, switches, Cat 5 cable, a 12V battery and charger, and various other components. During the year, participating students must organize project teams; design and build the ROV; install, wire, and test the motors; and learn to operate the ROV underwater, guided by its power and control cable. Through these processes, students learn lessons in engineering, safety, planning, organization, teamwork, quality control, customer satisfaction, and continuous improvement.

Students release a SeaPerch ROV into the pool for the vehicle performance competition.

Faces painted in their school colors, MACHS cadets Jeffrey Hample and Alex Garcia prepare to put a SeaPerch through its paces in the vehicle performance competition.

Lighting the flame of curiosity

For D’Arcy and his cadets, the SeaPerch Challenge was also an inspiration. To help with the lead-up learning, wiring, and motor testing, D’Arcy borrowed a Fluke Hands-On Training (HOT) tub, a footlocker-sized case of test equipment and training materials that Fluke lends to educators for classroom use. The HOT Tub program helps students learn electrical principles, testing procedures, and safety, and familiarizes them with electrical test tools.

Students learned the basics first. “They learned about voltage, current, resistance, power, and of course electric shock hazard and arc blast and flash hazards and proper PPE (personal protective equipment). They learned about test instrument applications, ratings, safe use, limitations, and the why(s), because they always ask why,” D’Arcy said.

“My classroom and lab were adjacent to the cafeteria….And once I broke out the Fluke meters and the electronics circuit assembly lab kits, the cadets were bringing their lunches into the lab to keep working and experimenting, building and testing circuits on their own without any additional inspiration from me. The flame of scientific curiosity had been had been well lit, and then it took off like wildfire.”

But it wasn’t always easy; not every student’s baseline science and mathematics skills were at grade level. D’Arcy stressed the importance of supportive instruction and hands-on experiences in helping students to succeed.

“The cadets really respond well and handle their in-class frustration and challenges better if they have the durable impression that their instructor likes them, respects them, cares about them, and expects professionalism but not perfection from them, every day, all the time,” D’Arcy said. He added that teaching students to hold themselves accountable is key in helping them to realize their full potential.

Into the pool: It’s show time!

After much preparation, it was time for a showdown with other SeaPerch Challenge participants. The Maritime Academy team competed in four categories: Vehicle Performance, Team Presentation, Design Notebook, and Spirit and Sportsmanship. Vehicle Performance consisted of a swimming pool test that involved stopping the flow of, and capping, a model oil well and collecting “spilled oil” from the surface. Team Presentation tested how well the students could convey their engineering ideas and market their ROV. Their organizational and documentation capabilities were put to the test by the Design Notebook, which they created in the process of working through design and engineering decisions. Finally, Spirit and Sportsmanship allowed them to demonstrate both their ability to recognize and encourage better solutions in engineering-and their ability to make noise.

And the winner? “Against 28 other high schools in the region, they took second place in the Performance and Team Spirit categories, and went on to the Nationals, where they placed tenth overall, in only the second year of competing,” D’Arcy said.

“In the beginning, many cadets were skeptical of the idea of learning about electricity and test instruments,” D’Arcy said. “But given ’due encouragement’, time, instruction, and enough meters for all hands to really participate, their skepticism was soon replaced with a growing realization that they truly were picking up uncommon, yet practical lessons and skills.” One young woman was even able to use the digital multimeter provided in the HOT Tub to diagnose the problem she had been having with her cell phone not charging properly. She discovered an intermittent loose connection in the connector end of the charging cord, which she was able to fix in a matter of seconds with a pair of needle nose pliers.

This year the MACHS SeaPerch Program has Varsity and JV sections. Both are overseen by marine mathematics instructor Ms. Marshall and coached by last year’s learners

Fluke will be there too, of course - HOT Tubs and all.

Watch SeaPerch in action »