Robots stop swimming pool’s pretend oil spill

June 3, 2011

By Laura Geggel

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By Marla Crouch Maywood Middle School’s team (from left) members Hannah Matson, Matthieu Blanchet, Jason Jarman and Sydney Hartford, check the buoyancy and maneuverability of Vortex, the name of their remote operated vehicle.

Maywood Middle School’s team (from left) members Hannah Matson, Matthieu Blanchet, Jason Jarman and Sydney Hartford, check the buoyancy and maneuverability of Vortex, the name of their remote operated vehicle. By Marla Crouch

Time was of the essence as students navigated their handmade robots underwater, doing their best to stop the oil spill and save the sea life from impending disaster.

Granted, there was no actual oil spewing into the swimming pool, but students from Maywood Middle School pretended there was as they sent their robots to save the day.

Last year, the Maywood Robotics Club had only two students, but it grew to seven this year, enough to send two teams to this year’s competition, called the Marine Advanced Technology Education Remote Operated Vehicle Competition, sponsored by the Marine Technology Society.

Since January, the students — Matthieu Blanchet, Sydney Hartford, Jason Jarman, Joseph Jarman, Duncan Magendanz, Hannah Matson and Benton Smith — have designed and built robots equipped for the 2011 challenge, a contest modeled after the 2010 Deep Water Horizon Oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

During the challenge, each robot had to turn off an oil valve — a task requiring the robot to turn an underwater wheel around twice — and then cap a leaking oil derrick. Next, students directed their robots to the pool floor, where they could pick up and rescue fake sea cucumbers, crabs, sponges and plants from the spill.

The teams also made posters about their projects, detailing their work.

“The best part of this project for me was having to build a robot,” sixth-grader Benton Smith said.

“I learned that building a robot is pretty much harder than building anything else,” sixth-grader Joseph Jarman said.

Students feverishly worked on their robots, connecting motor propellers to the framework, and linking the wires to their hand controllers, which allowed them to direct the robots remotely.

They got a few test trials — robotics club advisor and Maywood science teacher Marla Crouch has a friend with a swimming pool. She also took the students to the University of Washington, where they could test their robots in a saltwater tank.

Students got a tour of a university oceanography laboratory, where they saw a giant robot used to measure weather and water currents in the middle of the ocean, eighth-grader Jason Jarman said.

“It has made me more interested in pursuing a career that involves our oceans and a job that involves designing and building robots,” eighth-grader Matson wrote in an email. “I doubt that I would be interested in these possibilities if I hadn’t joined Robotics Club.”

Introducing students to careers dealing with robotics and oceanography is essential, Crouch said.

“When you look toward the future for jobs, ocean and marine sciences are expecting huge growth,” she said.

Students had a great time at the King County Aquatic Center in Federal Way on May 7, the day of the contest, learning as they went. One team attached a dustpan to its robot with the hope that it would scoop up the faux sea creatures, but the pan was not deep enough and many of the little creatures floated away. The robot also had a series of propeller malfunctions, but some deft rewiring helped them reboot the system.

“I learned a lot about hydrodynamics,” Blanchet, an eighth-grader, said. “When I was building land robots, they could be bulky and flat and it didn’t matter, but with this, the water is dense so it can’t be flat,” because of the water’s resistance.

Joining Robotics Club taught Matson about time management and teamwork.

“It wasn’t like in a normal class where you could shove the whole group project onto one dedicated overachiever and then take credit for it when it gets turned in,” she wrote. “Building a remote-operated vehicle and making a display board about the project requires as many hands as you can get.”

The Issaquah Schools Foundation and the Maywood Associated Study Body provided funding for the club.

Beaver Lake Middle School’s robotics club also attended the competition.

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