Underwater Innovation Studied Through STEM Programming with Robots

The United States is surrounded by water. Living in the Great Lakes State, it seems reasonable that many colleges and universities would have programs designed to provide a practical, safe and economically feasible means of performing deep underwater work, or “underwater interventions,” especially when considering the length of time that humans have been using the Great Lakes as a transportation blue-way, as well as a main source of food.

However, this is not the case. There are currently four Marine Science and Technology programs in the United States. Two of them are in Northern Michigan (North Western Michigan College in Traverse City and Alpena Community College).

Both colleges are teaching students about remotely operated vehicles ROV technology and engineering. ROV’s are underwater robots that allow the vehicles operator to remain in a comfortable environment while the ROV performs underwater work through an umbilical (or tether) that carries power, commands and controls signals to the vehicle. At the same time, the tether carries status and sensory data back to the pilot’s topside.

In its quest to develop robots to recover items lost at sea (lost torpedoes, bombs and even pilots), the United States Navy is credited with advancing ROV engineering and technology. Commercial firms were the next group to advance ROV technology based on work done by the military. They discovered that ROV’s can be used to support off-shore oil operations.

Saturday, April 20, 2013 more than 30 teams of students and mentors converged on the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary in Alpena to participate in the 2013 Great Lakes Regional MATE ROV Competition. The competition, hosted by the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary and Alpena Community College, was held at Alpena High School.

This year, through Michigan State University Extension, several Michigan 4-H club teams participated in the 2013 Great Lakes Regional MATE ROV Competition. They joined student teams from upper elementary schools, middle schools, high schools, home schools, community colleges, universities and community organizations (such as the Boys and Girls Club). The MATE competition is an international event that takes place across the United States, and in Canada, Hong Kong, Scotland, Japan and Egypt. The competition consists of three different “classes” (Explorer, Ranger and Scout). The classes all have their own mission specifications/requirements. However, there are varying levels of creativity and design sophistication, depending on the students who make up each team.

The MATE competition required students to think of themselves as “entrepreneurs” and transform their teams into companies that manufacture, market and sell “products.” Students were encouraged to imagine their mission in terms of deep water oil drilling, the exploration of shipwrecks and/or the installation of instruments on the seafloor.

Mentors focused on teaching youth more about entrepreneurial skills, which are in high demand in the current employment marketplace, allowing potential job seekers to set themselves apart from the crowd. The specific entrepreneurial skills threaded through this year’s competition included the ability to understand the breadth of business operations (from finances – to research and development – to media outreach); work as an integral part of a team and to apply technical knowledge and skills in new and innovative ways.

This programming framework allows staff, mentors and the industry to create an education system that meets the needs of both employers and students in a flexible and direct way. It also actively increases awareness of marine related careers, all the while allowing students an opportunity to gain up-to-the minute information. In the end, students are assisted in making informed choices concerning their education and future.

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