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Students Build Sea Perches
by Andrea Cohen, MIT Sea Grant

Teachers at South Boston's Odyssey High have found a new way of making sure students stay focused on Friday afternoons: that's when the students get to build their Sea Perches. Odyssey High is just one of 18 schools and organizations participating in a program to teach kids how to build their own remotely operated underwater robots.

above: Odyssey students Allen Martin and James Maloney.  
Launched by MIT Sea Grant in January of 2003, the program trains teachers and mentors to build remotely operated vehicles known as Sea Perches. The teachers, in turn, are offering courses to their middle and high school students, who will be building a fleet of Sea Perches. Boston's Museum of Science, the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers, and the National Shipbuilding Research Program are all involved in plans for expanding the program. Funding comes from the Office of Naval Research's National Naval Responsibility Initiative.

Thus far, 30 teachers and mentors have participated in three-day workshops held at MIT and the Naval Surface Warfare Center's Carderock Division in Maryland. They, in turn, have started Sea Perch programs in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, and New Hampshire. While the robot, made of PVC pipe, can be built by one person working two full days, classroom scenarios differ, with each teacher figuring a pace that works for a particular class or afterschool club. With its themes of marine engineering and ocean exploration, the program teaches students basic skills in ship and submarine design and can easily be turned into a multidisciplinary venture.

"The students like building Sea Perches because it's very hands-on, and teachers like it because it engages kids," says Brandy Moran, MIT Sea Grant education coordinator. Moran conducts the training sessions and provides support to teachers. MIT Sea Grant's AUV research engineer Victor Polidoro works with the workshop participants in building the underwater vehicles and is developing low-cost, low-tech sensors and modifications--such as a grabber arm and hydrophone--helping to make the robots into useful tools.

At Odyssey High, Robert Bonnano, Bob Healy, and Brian Keefe are teaching 30 ninth grade students in math and physics to build Sea Perches. In building the robots, students learn about weight and buoyancy, as well as how to build a propulsion system and develop a controller. And they learn how to work together.
  above: Odyssey students Shalonna Wright and Giovanna Tovar.
Scott Dickison teaches biology and general science to ninth and 10th graders at Rogers High School in Newport, RI. "I've used electronics before and have some basic skills, but had never done anything like this before," he says. Dickison has a dozen students participating now in an afterschool robotics club and keeps the Sea Perch on his desk. "My hope is to let everyone see what we've got and stir up more interest," he says. His students will use their Sea Perch for observations in biology class and may mount a camera on it to study the bay. In addition, says Dickison, "We may use the Sea Perch for collecting water samples for a salt marsh monitoring program with Save the Bay." He also hopes to get his students competing in next year's Annual International ROV Competition organized by the Marine Advanced Technology Education Center and the Marine Technology Society's ROV Committee.

Marty Rothwell teaches 11th and 12th grade engineering and physics at the Chantilly Academy High School, Fairfax, Va. He says his students have taken to building Sea Perches, in part, because "hands-on [learning] is more effective, challenging and fun." His three students spent three weeks building their robot and then tested it in a local pool with an on-board camera that sent real-time pictures to a TV screen. As for future plans with Sea Perches, Rothwell says, "I would like to create a Sea Perch contest next year with high schools bringing their creations to Carderock for a tournament. It would be a great way to build interest in the Sea Perch program and get students interested in the Navy. As for his students who built the Sea Perch, he says, "They all plan on going into engineering."

To see the program's interactive online manual (developed by partners at iMarine, a division of MIT's Ocean Engineering Dept.), or for additional information about the Sea Perch program, please visit

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