Portsmouth students engineer designs for undersea robots
PORTSMOUTH — While taking a break building an underwater robot inside Building 80 at the Naval Undersea Warfare Center (NUWC) in Middletown, 16-year-old Maddie Hobbs said while she’s strong in math and science, she was never sure about engineering.
So to learn more, she enrolled in the Undersea Technology Apprentice Program (UTAP), which provides high school students an opportunity to participate in an engineering project in small group settings under the mentorship of local professionals. The three-week program at NUWC started July 21 and has 12 high school students from Portsmouth and 11 from Middletown, all working in small teams.
“I heard about it at school and I like science but I’m not really sure what I want to do in as a career or in college,” said Maddie, who will enter her junior year at Portsmouth High School in September. “So, I thought this would be a really good opportunity to learn more about engineering and get some firsthand experience to see if it’s what I want to do.”
A table away from Maddie sat Emily Wirth, another PHS junior who was helping her own team prepare a robot for a swim.
“I took it to gain more knowledge and experience working with engineering,” said Emily, who’s not sure if she’ll pursue engineering later on. “Maybe. I’m still thinking about it.”
UTAP is tailor-made for students like Maddie and Emily, says Candy Desjardins, program manager for educational outreach at the Naval Undersea Warfare Center. While students get plenty of exposure to math and science in school, engineering is a different matter, she said.
“This is completely new to them. They’ll say, ‘Really, you can do that? That’s cool,’” said Ms. Desjardins, who runs three separate sessions of UTAP for high school students in the summer. “We’re trying to encourage them to explore science and engineering. Hopefully we can get some kids who are as enthused about it as we are so that’s something they can pursue and we can bring them back in college for internships and hopefully keep them here forever.”
The program benefits the Navy as much as it does students, she said.
“For the Navy in general, we have an issue where a lot of the scientists and engineers coming out of college are not U.S. citizens,” said Ms. Desjardins. “We can’t hire them. We need to bring our own homegrown talent in. We want to make sure these kids get interested early enough in their career that they can make some informed choices on what they want to do.”
Students paid to participate
One of the upshots of the program is that there’s no charge to enroll. In fact, students are actually paid a stipend — about $10 an hour.
“A little bit better than working at McDonald’s and they’re learning a lot,” said Ms. Desjardins, who noted that similar summer programs are often too expensive for many students. “I have a lot of kids, particularly in Newport and New Bedford, who have to work in the summer to help support their families, and I never want to deny them the opportunity to partake in something like this.”
UTAP is made possible through a grant from the van Beuren Charitable Foundation and offered through a partnership between NUWC and the Undersea Science and Engineering Foundation (USEF), a nonprofit volunteer group.
“It’s a group of concerned people who have technology backgrounds who want to help out the community in undersea science and technical subjects,” said Rich Talipsky, a USEF board member who lives in Portsmouth. “It’s being supported by all the school systems on the island.”
Mentors from NUWC and the surrounding community help students design and build fully functional ROV (remotely operated vehicle) SeaPerch undersea robots using the engineering design process.
Some of the students, like Emily, were involved in the First Lego League robotics program which is also run out of Building 80 for ages 9 to 14. However, the Lego program bears little resemblance to UTAP, according to Ms. Desjardins.
“In First Lego League, you’re working with Lego Mindstorms and it’s simple programming, but this is very different because we’re not using a built computer; they’re building their own,” she said.
During the first week students learned about buoyancy, said Mr. Talipsky. “They’re building their robot, maybe without motors at first, to see if it will float or sink and then they’ll modify their vehicle to make it neutrally buoyant. Then they’ll put propulsers on their vehicles to make them act as mini submarines,” he said.
In a NUWC test tank, the robots will follow real world-based underwater location and recovery tasks such as cargo container recovery.
“It’s going be able to pick up some weights and also we’re planning on putting a camera in and it will be able to look underwater and read a laminated piece of paper,” said Emily of her team’s robot. “We just need to add some more features and finish the control box and test it.”
Testing, re-testing, using critical thinking skills and improvising are among the keys to success. “The kids seem to be really into it and they get to put their own little spin on things. Once they have a prototype, they get to manipulate it, which is definitely the design process for engineering,” said Liza Zabel, a science teacher at PHS and one of the adult mentors.
Learning about engineering
Like Emily and Maddie, Courtney Ward said she also got involved with UTAP to learn more about engineering. “I’m sort of a math and science person, so I wanted to see if I’d like it,” said Courtney, who was working alongside teammate Justin Lee. Both will be seniors at PHS in the fall.
Engineering, said Courtney, seems to be more hands-on and creative than either math or science, and she was surprised by all the emphasis on computer programming. “I didn’t even know it was going to be like that. I thought it was just going to be building,” she said.
Maddie, meanwhile, said there was a bigger focus on electronics than she was anticipating. “We haven’t done any of that in the science classes I’ve been taking. There’s a lot of circuit-building,” she said.
Still, she was impressed by how quickly her team is putting together its robot, which will have eight motors to control.
“I was surprised to have gotten this amount done already. I didn’t think we’d be able to build the robot until next week,” said Maddie, noting the importance of teamwork. “We’re all doing different things but everybody’s getting a chance to do everything.”
‘There’s no manual’
Ms. Desjardins said one of the big takeaways from UTAP is that it teaches students how to think on their own.
“A lot of the problem with education right now is there’s so much emphasis on mandatory testing. Everything’s being taught to the test. What kids don’t have time for in school anymore is this hands-on, project-type work. This gives them a unique opportunity to understand what things are like in the real world,” she said. “There’s no manual, there are no directions.”