NEWS | April 25, 2013

NRL Hosts 2nd Gulf Coast Regional SeaPerch Challenge

By Donna McKinney

The U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) hosted more than 110 elementary, middle, and high school students at the Mississippi Gulf Coast's second annual SeaPerch Regional Challenge in Biloxi on Saturday, March 9.

SeaPerch is a tethered, underwater remotely operated vehicle (ROV) students build using a basic, inexpensive kit of PVC pipe, pool noodles, and other mechanical and electronic gear.

Thirteen teams from schools in Mississippi and Louisiana maneuvered their robots in a deepwater transfer challenge and underwater obstacle course at the Biloxi Natatorium.

The transfer challenge represents a real-life deepwater operation, said David Young, NRL's SeaPerch coordinator. The students must transfer rings suspended on a hook in the middle of the pool and place it in an underwater basket on the poolside using only the robot.

Teams were awarded points for how quickly they maneuvered the obstacle course and how many rings they retrieved within a 15-minute time limit. While some team members drive their ROV in the challenge, others present their ROV design to a panel of judges, explaining the benefit of their ROV's design. Teams were awarded for their navigation and agility skills, sportsmanship, design, and presentation.

While building and testing the SeaPerch ROV, students learn and apply basic engineering principles and science concepts with a marine engineering theme.

SeaPerch complements the research NRL conducts and the operational oceanographic support provided by the scientists at the Naval Oceanographic Office here at Stennis Space Center, said Dr. Joe Calantoni, NRL research physicist and National Defense Education Program (NDEP) site coordinator. Students are fascinated to learn that Navy civilian scientists pilot much larger, much more sophisticated versions of SeaPerch daily in support of the Navy.

The Navy hopes to capitalize off the excitement SeaPerch brings to the classroom.

The number of Navy-employable college graduates in engineering programs has declined, but programs like SeaPerch aim to excite students about becoming future Navy scientists, architects, and engineers.

Our mission is to inspire the next generation of Navy scientists and engineers—the people who will one day have my job, said Calantoni.

The Office of Naval Research (ONR) STEM2Stern program is a strong supporter of SeaPerch, providing funding for hundreds of classrooms around the country, including those participating in Saturday's challenge.

Although most of the SeaPerch students are years away from a college degree, ONR recognizes the importance of enthusing students early about science and engineering so they are willing to attempt the fundamental classes in high school and are prepared for advanced instruction when they enter college.

We are always looking for volunteers to work with a teacher using SeaPerch, said Young. The kids like to meet a real life scientist or engineer and the teacher appreciates the experience and perspective we bring to the classroom.

The Mississippi Gulf Coast SeaPerch program is supported by the Naval Research Laboratory at Stennis Space Center, Miss., the National Defense Education Program, University of Southern Mississippi, NASA, and the Office of Naval Research.