Diving into their studies - pressofAtlanticCity.com: Life

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Diving into their studies

When you're going to school by the ocean it's fun to do some underwater exploration

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Posted: Saturday, January 19, 2013 12:01 am

Some of the kids at Cape May Elementary School, fourth- to sixth-graders, got a chance the other day to show off a little science project they've been working on lately.

Well, make that a science and technology and engineering and math and writing and art and communications - and maybe a few more subjects - project they're working on.

These kids broke out the remotely operated vehicles and motorized controllers they built and put them through their paces - underwater, in the school's pool.

Right, remotely operated vehicles doing tricks, on and under the surface of the water. And no, this isn't science fiction. This is grade school.

Edgar Ramirez, 10, got his ROV to pick up and spin a ball as he navigated the submersible craft around the surface, at the end of a wire maybe 30 feet long.

Along the pool to his right, Gabriella Hristov and Chandler Herr were getting their battery-powered motors to pull a floating hoop around the water. And that gave the other kids, including Sadie Jensen and Abby Simcox, a target to chase when they got their turns at the controls.

By the way, this was just about the first time these kids got to practice with the ROVs, which they started building last month from scratch - or at least from kits provided by Seaperch.

That's a project sponsored by a branch of the U.S. Navy, the Office of Naval Research, and developed by professors and scientists from MIT, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The idea is to get students interested in careers in science, technology, engineering and math - or STEM, in education terms.

So while these kids may think they're getting out of class - and out of their shoes into bare feet - to mess around with a submersible boat in a pool, the real lesson in the project is that science and all those related subjects don't have to be dull. They can be challenging, fascinating, even fun.

And the kids obviously get that point.

"To find the Titanic, they used one of these," explains Jensen, an 11-year-old fifth-grader, as she tools an ROV around the pool. "But it was bigger, and it was attached to a ship."

Sandy Sandmeyer-Bryan, a veteran Cape May Elementary teacher who's in charge of the Seaperch project, adds the technology her kids are working with has plenty more important uses in today's world.

"After the oil spill (in the Gulf of Mexico), when they had to go down and cap the wells, they used ROVs," she said.

But the kids' Seaperch journey doesn't end once they finish building boats they can control by wires. (The wires are still needed, even in today's increasingly wireless world, because radio waves don't travel well through water, the teacher explains.)

"We're learning about ROVs, but we're also going to learn about AUVs" - autonomous unmanned vehicles, which are pre-programmed on land and then sent on missions underwater. And another focus of study will be HOVs, or human-occupied vehicles, Sandmeyer-Bryan says.

She's getting volunteer help with Seaperch from Sue Slotterback, an environmental-education consultant from Dennis Township who has run popular programs at local schools on monarch butterflies and horseshoe crabs. Slotterback was at an education conference in Virginia a few years ago when she heard about Seaperch, and she talked her friend, Sandmeyer-Bryan, into trying it out at her school.

They knew Cape May Elementary had a natural head start on an underwater project - it has had its own built-in pool since the 1960s. But this particular school also had one potential disadvantage when it came to advanced undersea exploration, Slotterback adds:

"This is normally done by high-school and middle-school students," she says.

And the project is about to get much more complicated for these grade-school engineers. They have to add lights and cameras to their ROVs, and even operate the vehicles without looking at them. One Seaperch challenge forces the operator to control the ROV while looking away from the pool - only seeing where the craft is, and what it's doing, by watching it on a monitor for that camera.

Jensen adds she looks forward to another part of the project, when the kids have to add arms and hooks to the vehicles, and work them remotely too.

The teachers say they're getting a lot more lessons than just hard science into the kids' underwater work. Sandmeyer-Bryan, whose specialties include literacy and the school's enrichment programs, has all the Seaperch students keeping journals of their progress and discoveries. Plus they're creating art in sketchbooks - and they got together to create one joint book that's scheduled to be on display soon at the Brooklyn Art Library, through its annual Sketchbook Project.

Then there's plenty of oceanography and other environmental education involved. The teachers know their kids have a huge lead over most American students on doing actual undersea exploration, given they all live within a few miles of the Atlantic Ocean and the Delaware Bay.

Victoria Zelenak, the school's principal and Cape May's district superintendent, liked all that when Sandmeyer-Bryan pitched Seaperch to her.

"The fact that we have a pool, and we're by the ocean and the bay - it's using our resources to help the children explore the environment in which they live," said Zelenak, who adds the Cape May Elementary pool is open to the public out of school hours, and it's a popular feature around the town.

She happens to know first-hand that controlling a ROV isn't as easy as it looks - more on that later - but she says she was confident Sandmeyer-Bryan could make it work for grade-school kids.

The school plans to show off the project in public next month when it holds an annual community festival Feb. 26. This year's theme is "Dive Into Ocean Exploration," and everybody involved expects the Seaperch mission to be a highlight of that night.

Shortly after the kids finished the submersible boats she'd heard so much about, Zelenak asked to take a turn running one. Alas, at least that science experiment was apparently not a great success. By some reports, the students had to work on their social skills - by bravely, politely stifling their laughter - as this highly educated adult tried to do what she'd just seen them do so easily.

"I kind of felt like, 'Are you smarter than a fifth grader?'" says Zelenak, who can laugh about her own performance. "But that's OK. They can be smarter than their superintendent, their principal."

In fact, you could even say that's a good definition of success in education.

(For more details on the program, visit seaperch.org.)

Contact Martin DeAngelis:

609-272-7237

MDeangelis@pressofac.com

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