May 22, 2012

Students Take On Underwater Engineering Challenge as part of the MIT Sea Grant Program

Cambridge, MA – On May 3rd, 80 high school and middle school students made their way to MIT’s Zesiger Athletic Center pool to test their engineering prowess at the Sea Perch Institute Challenge 2012 year-end event. At the pool, the students confronted the challenge scenario: a disastrous underwater oil well pipe blow out that sent simulated oil pouring out of a gaping underwater hole. The teams of students got to work, organizing the response efforts and deploying modified Sea Perch remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) to contain the spill and stop the leak.

What is a Sea Perch?
The Sea Perch is a simple, underwater, remotely operated vehicle made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC) pipe and other inexpensive, readily available materials. The Sea Perch Program, created by the MIT Sea Grant College in 2003, trains educators across the United States and around the world to build the Sea Perch. Teachers then work with students to build their own customized Sea Perches and deploy them on research missions such as water-quality testing. The hands-on Sea Perch experience is a gateway to further study and careers in robotics, engineering, marine sciences and more. Over 300 teachers in 16 U.S. states and countries around the world have implemented Sea Perch, which receives major support from the Office of Naval Research.

About the Sea Perch Institute
The Sea Perch Institute is a multi-year program that works with veteran Sea Perch schools to build on the basic Sea Perch ROV course with a more advanced and multidisciplinary curriculum. The institute was developed and implemented by MIT Sea Grant, and is also sponsored by the Office of Naval Research. To be selected for the program, schools are required to demonstrate support from their school administrations and involvement of multiple teachers and classrooms.

In the 2011-12 academic year, MIT Sea Grant worked with the following Massachusetts Schools: Stoneham High School in Stoneham, Dexter and Southfield Schools in Brookline, Newton North High School in Newton, The British School of Boston in Jamaica Plain, and Swampscott Middle School in Swampscott. Teachers from each school participated in regular professional development meetings throughout the year at the MIT Campus, and each school was offered support in the form of classroom visits by MIT educators, cost sharing of supplies and materials, and opportunities to bring students to MIT to test vehicles. The students spent the year engaged in hands-on learning.

The Sea Perch Institute Challenge 2012
For the special May 3rd event, students were challenged to analyze and resolve a deep-water blowout and oil spill scenario using the Sea Perch vehicles that they modified and redesigned throughout the school year. As the disaster was far too complex for any one team of students to resolve independently, schools were asked to pool resources and share their strategies. This year’s program included a student leadership component, for which teams sent student representatives to a meeting at the MIT campus to plan the disaster response management.

Each element of the disaster was simulated to help provide students with a realistic, yet surmountable challenge. A 6-foot floating structure was used to simulate the offshore drilling rig platform, and the marine riser pipe that stretched from the bottom of the pool to the water’s surface was modeled by a ½ inch rigid PVC pipe. Oil was simulated in several different ways to give the students multiple aspects of the problem to tackle. Black ping-pong balls, each said to represent 100 barrels of oil, were released from the bottom of the pool throughout the event. These quickly floated to the surface and spread creating a visual oil slick to clean up. The leaking pipe underneath the surface gushed hot water that dispersed and spread, creating a measurable oil plume. In addition to the hot water, a stream of bubbles also poured from the hole creating a distinct visual plume. Using underwater cameras and temperature sensors on Sea Perches, students characterized the shape and spread of the plume, both visually and by looking for temperature changes in the water.

As part of the first disaster response team, students drove their Sea Perch ROVs around the pool, using nets and scoops to capture the surface contaminants. Just as the students had captured all but a few of the contaminants, more suddenly emerged from the bottom of the pool signifying there was more to investigate than was at first apparent on the surface. Next teams began monitoring the underwater disaster site with cameras, while a different team located and started to cut away the underwater debris to clear the path to the damaged riser pipe. Following the debris removal, students used additional cameras and temperature sensors to further investigate the underwater damage by characterizing the plume of leaking oil, and pinpointing the leak on the riser pipe. Once the location of the leak was determined, students sent ROVs down to cut away the damaged pipe. The plan was to cap or seal off the whole diameter of the pipe rather than just the damaged area, which was a hole of undetermined size and orientation. Finally, students set out a massive modified Sea Perch ROV that carried a mechanism capable of capping the pipe.

As is often the case with dynamic daylong events, such as the Sea Perch Institute Challenge, the students had to head home before they were able to successfully make the capping mechanism work. Yet over the course of the day, they demonstrated excellent teamwork, dynamic adaptability and engineering prowess, skills that will greatly serve them on their way to college and, may set them on future careers paths in marine science and ocean engineering.

The mission of the MIT Sea Grant College Program is to employ innovative research, education and outreach strategies to responsibly use and sustain the vital marine resources of Massachusetts. The issues manifested and addressed locally are global in nature, and are thus widely applicable. Compelling challenges demand our attention as a solo entity, and in partnership with other groups living and working on the coasts and at sea. MIT Sea Grant brings the substantial intellectual abilities of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and our sister universities to bear on ocean-related challenges requiring an extraordinary technical contribution. In meeting these challenges, we expand human understanding of the ocean and establish the infrastructure to sustain the initiatives and talent pool needed to address complex issues of critical and fragile marine resources.

Contact: Judy Pederson
617 252-1741


Students make last minute changes to their Sea Perch at the 2012 Sea Perch Challenge.