Alaska’s JEDC Designs a First-Rate Super SeaPerch Workshop
Take seven teachers and seven students, together with their ideas about building better SeaPerches. Put them at a remote research center in Alaska for three days, and what do you get? Ideas that feed off each other; laughter and inspiration; students determining the direction that the workshop unfolds; some exciting successes; one sunk SeaPerch needing a rescue; and some let-off-steam high jinks. You also get lots of new ideas for the next time those teachers are in the classroom environment.
Going in, the group expected to focus on developing semiautonomous control of the ROVs and using various types of sensors to investigate the underwater world. But one ground rule was that the students would determine the actual projects. This could have created friction between overall intent and individual choices. But it was a tension-free workshop, perhaps because the location was idyllic.
Sheryl Salasky, a K-12 teacher and the science coordinator for the Chugach School District, in Alaska, said she was inspired by “the fluid exchange of ideas, and the thoughts and knowledge that are going on between people who are nine years old to several decades old. There are no boundaries. We’re playing together and working together.”
On the confab’s first evening the student participants disappeared after a meeting and a while later, the adults found them downstairs in the lab already working on projects. The kids had been drawn downstairs by a couple of Super SeaPerches that needed work. There was the Sea Cow, built by David Baker, a seventh grader in Massachusetts who did not attend the Alaska workshop but sent the Cow for retooling. Although it looks similar to a standard-build SeaPerch, it features a pressure housing, uses ball bearings for ballast, and weighs 30 pounds. Then there was The Cardinal, a bright-red, finned submersible originally built at MIT but sent to the Alaska workshop to get upgraded motors and a new dorsal fin.
“What’s really stimulating and exciting is the environment of learn, teach, make, and it’s all meshed together,” said Ben McLuckie, a teacher from Hoonah City Schools, in Alaska. “One minute I’m learning and the next I’m teaching something that I’ve figured out,” helping someone else learn it.
The Balloon Solution
Problems that needed solving seemed difficult at first, but the solutions sometimes used simple items. Karissa Land, a tenth-grader from Haines, AK, wanted to waterproof her SeaPerch motors so they would not corrode in seawater, and in the process she aimed to make them more aerodynamic. She blew up a balloon to the size she wanted the motor casing to be. Then she poured a sort of epoxy into a paper cup to create a solid foam. The epoxy began as two substances that when poured together become a hard foam. She put the balloon, which was slightly larger than the motor, inside the cup full of foam. The foam expanded around the balloon and hardened. She then cut open the hardened foam which had a perfect egg-shaped hollow core. That became the mold.
She next covered the inside of the mold with plastic and put the motor on that bed. She added more foam into the mold and put the other half of the cast on top. The foam expanded around the motor and hardened into the egg shape.
Tennie Bentz, a teacher at Haines Middle School, advised and helped on the waterproofing project. “Even after all of our other motors quit working because of corrosion, the egg kept working,” she says. “The only bad part about the egg shape was that it didn’t mount to the PVC very easily”—both having convex sides. She and Karissa ended up using a piece of foam as padding between the motor and the frame.
To test an idea for controlling the motors, Bentz and Karissa tried a simple $4 magnetic switch—the sort installed in home security systems—to shut down the SeaPerch motors and lights when the ROV reached a specific depth. It did the trick, giving their SeaPerch silent stealth when the switch triggered at a predetermined depth.
Two teachers, McLuckie and Dan Smalley, a physics teacher from the John D. O’Bryant School of Math and Science in Boston, worked on adding conductivity testers to a standard SeaPerch. There’s trapped air in the PVC pipe, McLuckie explains, when the SeaPerch submerges. “As pressure increases, the water column is going to go up. When it hits these two probes, conductivity is going to jump” with the result that researchers using this setup could measure depth. McLuckie built the probes, his daughter Jordan helped brainstorm solutions, and Smalley programmed the microcontroller.
Father and daughter (Jordan is a seventh-grader) hypothesized that an extension of this technology would allow scientists to specify a certain depth that the SeaPerch would go to and do water sampling.
Inspiration From Location
The Super SeaPerch workshop was created by Bob Vieth, STEM Education Specialist with the Juneau Economic Development Council, who says some of the participants arrived at the retreat site—a six-room cabin near a religious shrine and a NOAA marine research center—already with a concept of what they wanted to accomplish. Others formulated a project right on the spot. In the end, everyone collaborated with everyone else, offering ideas freely and erupting in joyful laughter when the youngest participants exceeded their elders’ problem-solving skills.
Perhaps part of the reason things went so well was the location, near where seals sunned and pods of orca whales were feeding. Certainly the bright people Vieth brought in made success likely. But at least part of it was that SeaPerch has always been a way for people to do something they’ve never done before, learn from it, master it, and perhaps go just a little further beyond.
SeaPerch, which is sponsored and funded by the Office of Naval Research (ONR) (http://www.onr.navy.mil), is managed by SNAME, the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers (http://www.sname.org). SeaPerch is also supported with funds from the National Defense Education Program (NDEP) (http://www.ndep.us).