Robots keep students immersed in learning

Harrison Bullhorn, 13, of Laing Middle School, watches as his robot dives into the water during the regional SeaPerch competition Thursday at Danny Jones Pool in North Charleston. The competition included area middle and high school students who built underwater robots that navigated obstacle courses against a clock.

West Ashley High student Christian Bohn shouted words of encouragement as his classmate James Williams guided an underwater robot — weighted down with a wobbly peg — across a slotted box at the bottom of the pool.

“You got it, you got it!” Bohn exclaimed, as Williams plopped the peg into a tiny hole.

The West Ashley seniors were among more than 50 middle and high school students from six Charleston and Dorchester county schools who competed Thursday in the Charleston Regional SeaPerch Competition at Danny Jones Pool in North Charleston. Students battled it out for a chance to compete in the 2015 SeaPerch National Challenge in May at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.

SeaPerch is an underwater robotics program aimed at engaging students in the subjects of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math.) To compete, students had to design and build an underwater remote-controlled vehicle using a kit of basic components.

A cadre of expert judges from SPAWAR, the U.S. Air Force, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and STEM Centers SC awarded points to students based on a presentation of their design as well as their vehicle’s performance in two timed underwater obstacle courses.

Judge Katy Chung, a marine biologist with NOAA, said she looked for whether students used a scientific design in building their vehicles and how they incorporated the principles of physics.

“I was really impressed with what they learned and how they applied it,” Chung said.

West Ashley science teacher Margaret Schultz Spigner, coordinator for the regional SeaPerch competition, said the event is meant to not only engage students in the STEM subjects, but also to teach them about teamwork and problem solving.

“And that’s what this does so beautifully,” Spigner said. “They have to create it, change it, test it and change it again.”

The day was filled with highs and lows as some students aced the courses while others struggled to control their vehicles.

Teams of students perched on the edge of the pool cheering with glee and muttering in frustration as they worked to navigate the course.

Curt Ray, an eighth-grader at C.E. Williams, wasn’t discouraged that his vehicle didn’t make it through an obstacle course of rings.

“You get to know how it is for next year,” Ray said.

North Charleston High School seniors Mikayla Fuller and Noah Johnson also weren’t deterred, despite the fact that the kit for their vehicle didn’t come in until the night before the competition. With no practice, Fuller still managed to successfully move a few weighted pegs.

“It was difficult, but in a way it was really fun,” Fuller said.

Teams from C.E. Williams Middle School and West Ashley High School won Thursday and will advance to the national competition.

The lesson that the winning West Ashley team took away from the event, the students said, was teamwork and practice.

“We learned a lot and put in hard work, so to see this pay off is more of a reward than winning,” said Dillon Faison.

And the West Ashley team already has a strategy for the national competition.

“Bring home the gold,” said Alusine Kamara.