Robotics students successfully cap 'oil spill'

Four teams of students develop problem-solving robots

Posted: Thursday, February 10, 2011

In an exciting last-minute success, a team of students trying to cap a mock-oil spill with aquatic robots succeeded.

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MICHAEL PENN / Juneau Empire
MICHAEL PENN / Juneau Empire

Students participated in a science and English class through the Juneau School District’s C.A.R.E.S. (Credit Attainment Recovery & Employability Skills) program. The course, paired with the Juneau Economic Development Council’s STEM SpringBoard program, use SeaPerch — an underwater robotics program.

Rebecca Farrell, a teacher working with the class, said the course is physical science, biology and language intensive.

Students met three evenings a week for four weeks applying physics, mathematics and engineering concepts into building aquatic robots for a Capstone project to cap a mock oil spill. Students also spent time composing a portfolio about the project, developing a proposal on a response plan.

“The Coast Guard would do something similar to that,” Farrell said. “They would put booms around it and have an immediate response plan to an environmental accident.”

So the students created their own plan to respond this particular incident. They read newspaper articles on other oil spills to research how they might respond.

As part of the class, different engineers came in and spoke to the students and they also took a field trip out to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration facility.

C.A.R.E.S. coordinator Bernie Sorenson said this also gave them a look into what careers are available, which is part of the C.A.R.E.S. curriculum.

Sorenson said it was fascinating listening to the students discuss what kinds of robots they’d like to see developed to do tasks they hate — and then the ethics involved in actually making that robot. They also built cars out of mouse traps and completed other small engineering projects using only materials they had in front of them.

Juneau-Douglas High School senior Joni Skrzynski said when she signed up for the class she thought it would be really hard.

“It’s been pretty fun,” she said. “I thought it was going to be super hard. There was a lot of electrical stuff, a lot of science I didn’t really understand before, but now I got it.”

Skrzynski said she will probably try out a couple more classes like this in college.

Dillon Torres, a sophomore at Thunder Mountain High School, wasn’t sure what he was getting into when he signed up for the class.

“I’ve never done anything like engineering like this,” he said. “I figured I’d do something new. ... I didn’t think we were actually going to be building these real robots. I didn’t think it was going to be this technical. It turned out to be really interesting, it’s kind of been hard at times.”

Torres is now interested in taking more engineering courses.

“Yeah actually, if we’re going to be doing things hands on like this,” he said. “I’m glad I picked this class.”

Both felt like the class could complete the challenge of capping the mock oil spill if they worked together and put their minds to it.

On Tuesday, the class split into four teams of three students at the Extended Stay Hotel for their final class celebration. Half the teams worked on first uncapping the “oil pipeline” in the hotel pool. The pipeline consisted of PVC pipe that, when uncapped, spurted air. All the teams successfully uncapped the pipe, but recapping with a new cap — one they had made — proved to be a bit more of a task. This was also the first time students got to test their robots, and some technical difficulties arose.

Each group had a short 20 minutes to uncap, and recap the pipe. One group, in the last short minutes of the challenge, successfully capped it.

“It was very cool because the students had built these and had learned about the buoyancy and the scientific and engineering practices around it,” Sorenson said. “... They all made admirable attempts. There was lots of teamwork and problem solving involved. We were just totally pleased.”

While half the teams were working on the challenge, the other half were explaining the project to parents and visitors from the 21st Century Learning Community Conference members. Students used their written portfolios and answered complex questions.

“They didn’t get off the hook easy in terms of questions,” Sorenson said. “I was impressed with the kids and their knowledge base in the end. I saw a lot of students feeling very accomplished, not only for what they had learned, but the other piece of all of this is these are students who are recovering credits. They’re on their way to graduating on time.”

Sorenson said rich programs like this wouldn’t be possible without local partnerships and gave credit to JEDC STEM program specialist Bob Vieth.

“I think he brought a level of richness to allow our program and curriculum to be that much stronger,” she said.

Vieth explained the SeaPerch program, which was developed by MIT in 2004. It was so successful in teaching underwater robotics, the Office of Naval Research took it over and has spread across the nation.

JEDC coordinates SeaPerch for Alaska. In the past year it has trained about 70 teachers how to use the program in their classroom and have provided close to 800 of robotic kits to classrooms across Alaska. It also provides technical support and curriculum development.

The robotics kits consist of basic hardware components, including PVC pipe, lamp wire and small hobby motors.

Vieth is hopeful the students will continue to work with the robots.

“Hopefully they’ll take them home and share them with their friends and family,” he said. “There is potential to take them into another classroom and make connections to other aspects of science.”

• Contact reporter Sarah Day at 523-2279 or at

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