The children, staring rapt, watched as the black metal device floated toward the bottom of a tank at the Atlantic City Aquarium. It looked like a pair of VCRs, tied together, jury-rigged with flashlights and little mechanical devices, twisting in unseen currents.

Except this was transmitting, to a nearby television, pictures of the fish and rays that fill the tank.

Soon it was joined by a similar device, framed in white PVC piping, suspended with foam and filled with whirring gizmos, floating toward the front of the aquarium tank for the students to see.

The 70 or so kids who gave up their Saturday morning will soon be making one of these devices for themselves through the SeaPerch program.

The SeaPerch program gets grade-school students building the underwater remote operating vehicle. It’s part of a competition designed to be fun, while still giving students new ways to learn and apply science, technology, engineering and math to a particular challenge.

Kids build the $143 kits through the program, sponsored by the U.S. Navy’s Office of Naval Research. They document their experiences in a notebook and compete with other students in an annual championship. This year’s contest is April 26 and 27 at Drexel University in Philadelphia.

Locally, Stockton undergraduate students serve as mentors to many of the classes that participate.

Stephen Michetti, a naval engineer with the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Philadelphia, said the program was developed about eight years ago. Now, more than 100 schools participate.

“We want to get kids excited about the natural sciences,” said Basilyn Bunting, the executive director of the Friends of American Engineering and Science, who helped organize the event.

Peter Straub, an assistant biology professor at The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, manipulated the larger underwater vehicle, named Shearwater, Saturday morning, while Tara Luke, a Stockton associate biology professor, fielded the questions from the kids.

Yes, it can dive to about 300 meters, or just under 1,000 feet.

Yes, it has lasers. Those are precisely set apart and can be used to calculate how big something is.

That claw? It can pick up things off the bottom of the ocean. Straub extended and flexed it, and picked up a small metal box from the bottom of the tank.

“Its really important to show kids how science can be fun,” Luke said later. As a child, she wanted to be an astronaut, an interest that by the time she was in high school changed more broadly to being an explorer. Since then, her exploring has taken her deep undersea, into the famous Alvin submersible, to study some of the life that flourishes at the superheated margin of the sea and the cracks in the earths crust.

Perhaps some of the students could be similarly inspired.

Jade Middleton, 13, an eighth-grade student at Oceanside Charter School in Atlantic City, said the event was fun. Her class participated in the program last year. They didn’t place in the contest, but they enjoyed working on it, she said.

Tailor Cain, 10, was skeptical. The fourth grader at Highland Academy in Galloway Township wasn’t sure if he wanted to work on the project. “Really, I want to be a firefighter.”

But Luke Karavan, 12, described it as a “great learning experience” after having worked on the program last year. The home-schooled student participated though the 4-H club.

“It was great to work on different components of the rover,” he said.

Contact Derek Harper:

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