A team of five Natick High School students accompanied by their teacher, Doug Scott, volunteer assistant Henry Haugland, and the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center's Donna Bulger attended a SeaPerch competition at New Bedford High School last month.

The team included freshmen Ian Russo and Peter Lunn, sophomore Mikey Maichen, and juniors Tommy Kimler and Ray Morreale, who as part of Scott's "Intro to Robotics" course, chose to spend at least 10 extra hours after school designing and revamping their two prospective underwater vehicles. This was their first robotics competition, although most of the students have decided to take more advanced robotics courses and perhaps even join the robotics team.

"I am convinced that this program has been life-changing for some of these students," said Haugland, whose son, Alex, went to Natick High School and was part of the group of students who pioneered the robotics program. "(The Natick Robotics teams have) learned how to attack complex problems as a team and figure out solutions. They learned conflict resolution.

"Ultimately, everything has been a team decision. Sometimes, they have been able to recognize that they made a poor decision, and they have had to stop and regroup. These are life skills."

The competition involved three different types of underwater challenges, including a time trial speed test, an obstacle course, and a course that involved the Remote Operated Vehicles picking up rings in the water and either dropping them to the pool floor or placing them in a bucket for even more points. The students shared that a lot of their work has been trial and error.

"When you watch the kids … the kids' first time putting their ROV in the water, you see the excitement. Something that they built and created, they have ownership of it," said Candie Desjardins, educational outreach program coordinator, Naval Underwater Warfare Center, Newport, R.I. Desjardins and her rotating team of 15-20 people regularly serves the Greater Newport area in a full-time effort to educate students in and outside of the classroom.

While this was the first time the Natick group had their ROVs in the pool, "We did test ROVs in the pond and collected samples for some science classes," said Morreale, who added that he used to play with Legos as a kid and that he, like his teammates, enjoyed engineering, science and math classes, so robotics was something they found interesting and challenging.

"We owe a lot of thanks to the Natick Labs (as the Natick Soldier Systems Center is known locally) and Donna Bulger," Scott said. "We wouldn't be anywhere near where we are now if it weren't for the financial and workforce support. The Natick Labs have been crucial to our success."

One of the interesting aspects about this competition is that the ROVs' dimensions can be whatever the team desires, except that lengths can't exceed 22 inches. Some ROVs were smaller and rounded while others were larger and rectangular.

The arm that can be attached and removed depending on the event is also subject to change, depending on the team. Natick's Team 1 used a "chainsaw approach," which was able to pull in rings and then push them forward as needed. Natick's Team 2 used what Morreale calls "the classic approach," which simply involved a plastic hook from a hanger, which was attached to the front of the vehicle.

Most of the students competing at the event this year were in fifth grade, and Desjardins commented that many of the skills the children learned in earlier years of schooling were skills used on paper. "Quite a few fifth graders accomplished tough tasks, like measuring and cutting pipe," Desjardins said. "This hands-on approach allows them to practice skills they may not have used in years."

One of the most rewarding aspects of the day was not necessarily just for the winners of the variety of competitions, but all of the students who had the chance to witness the achievements of their multiple hours of hard work and dedication. Many of the judges said that this competition was one of the best thus far, because all of the ROVs ran smoothly and swiftly across the pool.

"At the end of the day after the competition, they're all meeting each other and sharing ideas," said Bulger, associate director for Operation and Outreach at NSRDEC. "It's a really nice thing to see. Sure, it's a competition, but in the end they're able to share ideas."

Page last updated Mon January 28th, 2013 at 09:23