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Vickroy: Matteson students ready for Shedd ROV competition

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Updated: May 26, 2014 6:38AM



There is no “i” in team but, given enough PVC pipe, there just might be a robotic underwater vehicle.

Since the beginning of the school year, the 20 members of the ROV club at Powell Middle School in Matteson have been meeting every Friday to design, construct and operate their own underwater robotic device in preparation of Saturday’s Shedd Aquarium Midwest Regional MATE Underwater Robotics competition.

“We had to work together, and when things went wrong we had to brainstorm and figure out how to fix them,” eighth-grader Dimetri Lucas said.

Working with science, math and social studies teachers, the students spent their free time building the mechanical remotely operated vehicle, or ROV. During the competition, which will be held at the UIC Natatorium, the device will be submerged and then remotely controlled to perform a timed mission.

Emmanuel Perezchica oversaw the design of the ROV, paying particular attention to placement of the motors and the camera and then adjusting the foam for better buoyancy and stability.

“There was a lot to learn,” the seventh-grader said. “It was a good experience.”

Last year, the Powell kids took first place in the Scout class. This year, with eighth-grader Angelique Grays-Shelton at the controls, they are determined to win again.

More important than walking away with a trophy, says science teacher Sue Hokkanen, are the lessons they’re learning: that math, science and social studies are real and fun.

“This is hands-on,” Hokkanen said. “This is an opportunity to engage in something with a social context to it. That’s what’s missing in education today. We’ve become such a test-driven, data-driven society, that we miss opportunities like this.”

And it is further proof that if you give kids an opportunity to learn, they will embrace it.

“It is so powerful when they want to do this kind of thing outside of the classroom,” Hokkanen said. “These are the future problem-solvers of the world.”

Angelique, who is a charter member of the 3-year-old club at Powell, said, “I like that this is technology and water. Those two things commonly don’t mix.”

She’s heard the talk about girls shying away from the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields, and she’s not having it. “I’ve always liked to build things,” she said.

So have the other girls in the club.

“I joined because I thought it would be cool, and it is,” said seventh-grader Caisha Weatherspy. Ditto for Kyla Kyles.

The students test their ROV in the pool at the nearby Matteson Community Center. While Angelique operates the controls, other students tend to the launch, the power source, the extensive cabling and the ROV’s retrieval.

There are 26 ROV clubs across the Chicago area, including ones at Homewood-Flossmoor High School and Morgan Park Academy; 19 will compete Saturday.

Hokkanen, who learned about the Shedd program through a Facebook friend who works at the aquarium, said for the first two years, Powell teachers helped the kids get their vehicles up and running.

“This year, it is totally their work,” she said.

Among the skills they acquire and topics they learn about in the process are buoyancy, electrical circuitry, measuring, balance, drawing blueprints to scale as well as teamwork and leadership.

The work cuts across disciplines, so math teacher Lael DuBose and social studies teacher Eric Mooney, as well as science teacher Sharon Bird, pitch in to ensure the kids get the most from the experience.

Each year’s competition has a different theme. This year’s is Great Lakes shipwrecks.

Rachel Patten, Shedd learning specialist, said students will be expected to use their self-designed vehicles to remove debris from a hole in the wreck, conduct a sonar scan of the wreck and recover a sensor and deploy a new one.

And they’ll have to work quickly because everything is timed, she said.

Patten said the aquarium started the ROV program five years ago as a way to engage students in STEM projects. The club, funded by Motorola Solutions, provides educators with the training, support and materials — drills, soldering irons and PVC pipe — to run their own after-school robotics club. The ROVs are expected to be sustainable, she said, with many of the components being reusable year after year.

Some of the teachers expand on the initial lessons, Patten said, using their school’s ROV to test other underwater environments, such as lakes.

“This is a chance for kids to learn science the way real scientists do,” Patten said. “They get to be creative and articulate their ideas.”

Kimberly Johnson, principal of Powell, said, “It is amazing what these kids have been able to come up with.”

She attributes the program’s success to the kids’ enthusiasm and the teachers’ dedication.

“I’m so proud of them; they all gave 100 percent,” she said.

Shedd Aquarium Midwest Regional MATE Underwater Robotics
competition will be 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at UIC Natatorium,
901 W. Roosevelt Road, Chicago.



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