May 21, 2011 in City

Young roboticists sink their stuff

Competition features underwater obstacle course
By The Spokesman-Review
Jesse Tinsley photoBuy this photo

Sixth-graders Brittney Scheller, left, and Shania Malek examine the mounting of the motor on their underwater robot during a final set-up session Friday at North Pines Middle School.
(Full-size photo)

If you go

What: Underwater Robotics Competition

When: Today, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Where: Eastern Washington University Aquatics Building, Washington Street

After months of hard work, students from five area schools will put their robot-building skills to the test today in an underwater robotics competition.

Students from North Pines, Cheney, East Valley, New Journey Alternative and St. Patrick’s middle schools will compete in teams of three in the first Inland Northwest SeaPerch underwater obstacle course.

“It’s helping improve the science, teaching, engineering and math curriculum in the schools,” said Patrick Molvik, a SeaPerch outreach coordinator and employee of the Navy’s Acoustic Research Detachment in Bayview. “It helps them learn problem-solving skills. It gives them a hands-on project to work on.”

In addition to science, teaching, engineering and math skills – STEM for short – the students learn to read manuals and follow directions, use a variety of tools, solve problems and work as a team to reach a common goal, said Dorinda Belcher, a North Pines science teacher who is working with the students along with fellow North Pines teacher Jerad Mendenhall.

“It’s teaching them the patience of troubleshooting and not giving up,” Belcher said. “We make a mistake and we back up say, ‘What did we do wrong?’ There’s a real reward in it for them.”

Sponsored by the U.S. Navy’s Office of Naval Research, SeaPerch is a popular program in the eastern United States. With the help of a grant from the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, obtained by Bill Persons, an engineering student at Eastern Washington University, the competition is taking place in the Inland Northwest for the first time.

“They’re talking in education now about how our kids are behind (other countries) in STEM activities,” said Vicki Arnold, who coordinates after-school programs at North Pines. “Anything we can do to bring these opportunities to our kids, we do. They’re getting experiences they wouldn’t normally get.”

She said it’s especially important to encourage girls to participate, because fields involving math and science are male-dominated.

North Pines students Brittney Scheller, 11, Hannah King, 12, and Shania Malek, 12, who call their team The Pink Panthers, will submerse their robots for the first time today and maneuver them through an obstacle course using a remote.

“I think we might be the only all-girl team,” King said. “If we won, it would be like, ‘Wow, we did this.’”

In the process of building their robot – constructed of PVC pipe, foam, a motor, propellers and plenty of wiring – the girls learned “that teamwork is good and that teamwork makes things easier,” Scheller said.

The girls are confident they will win, they said, but will still be happy with their work if they don’t take first place.

“Even if we don’t win, we spent all this time building a robot,” Scheller said. “Even if we don’t win, I’ll still be proud of my robot.”

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