Hilton Head Prep students test underwater robots

rheaton@beaufortgazette.comAugust 5, 2012 

Julia Nahman, 16, works on attaching her circuits to her remotely operated underwater vehicle Thursday afternoon during the Aquatic Robotics Scholars Program at Hilton Head Preparatory School on Hilton Head Island.


Fifth-grader Matt Bell hovered over the small tub of water and hoped he had gotten this experiment right the first time. As the robot he had built sank to the bottom, he rushed back into the classroom -- it was time to add another 2- or 3-inch section of a floating pool noodle to the PVC pipe frame he had designed.

His robot must achieve neutral buoyancy -- neither sinking nor floating --so its remote-control propellers can steer up, down, left and right through the water.

Once he gets it right, he'll put the robot in a pool and drive it toward the bottom to scoop up a sinking, T-shaped PVC pipe.

That's the first goal a handful of Hilton Head Preparatory School students aimed for last week as they splashed into the world of robotics.

About a dozen students in grades three through 11 took two days out of their summer to begin learning the basics. They designed a frame, mounted motors and wired their remotes.

It's the first of several projects they will tackle this year as the school folds more robotics into its science curriculum.

Science department chairwoman Tina Webb-Browning said she thinksthe robotics program -- which will be used some in the classroom, but mostly within a multi-age club -- will get students more interested in science.

Students in grades three through 12 can join the new club. Webb-Browning said she hopes they will compete against other schools in the Marine Advanced Technology Education Center's underwater robotics competitions in the spring.

At those meets, teams compete to perform tasks such as collecting water samples with underwater robots they designed. Cathy Sakas, an education coordinator with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said competitors use robots much as a scientist would for ocean research.

Webb-Browning said plans are in the works to prepare the student-built robots to run in salt water and get them in the Atlantic Ocean.

"I want to spark their interest in exploring marine careers," she said. "Living where we live, I try to infuse as much environmental science as I can into our curriculum. And with this, we've got engineering and technology here, too."

The students said they were excited to get more hands-on robotics experience.

"In my time at Prep, I've not done anything like this," 11th-grader Christian Steimetz said. "It's new ground, definitely."

Sixth-grader Lucas Tomita has built a few robots at home, but has never designed one from scratch, he said. He plans to join the club and help run it.

"It's being able to do what I love to do, which is build robots," Lucas said.

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