Corrie Embree stood chest-deep in the aqua pool water near her underwater glider, frowning as it hovered a foot under the surface. “It’s pushing water out right now,” she said, smiling as the glowing blue water-bottle robot made a graceful curving dive.
Seven Ketchikan middle-schoolers participated in the “Build an Underwater Glider” camp last week at the University of Alaska Southeast Ketchikan campus Roberts Building on Stedman Street.
The Juneau Economic Development Council and the U.S. Department of Defense coordinated the camp. The National Defense Education Program funded the camp, engineer and NDEP pre-engineering program educational outreach coordinator Toby Ratcliffe said.
Ratcliffe, an ocean engineer, was one of three engineers from the Naval Surface Warfare Center, Carderock Division in Washington, D.C. who worked with the students for the week-long camp, and local Bill Harney also volunteered. Harney, the site director for SEAFAC, the Navy’s acoustic measurement facility on Back Island, took the students on a tour of the laboratories on the island Tuesday.
The gliders that the students created are smaller models of 6- to 10-foot long actual gliders, or “Autonomous Underwater Vehicles.” Harney said AUVs are used to collect ocean data by researchers such as biologists, fisheries scientists and engineers.
Like those AUVs, the gliders made by campers were autonomous, and followed programs the students created with “Arduino” kits. According to the arduino website, “Arduino is a tool for making computers that can sense and control more of the physical world than your desktop computer.”
Bryce Moss, a camper who will start seventh grade at Ketchikan Charter School this fall was testing his glider in a yellow plastic tank at the Robertson Building’s Construction Academy classroom. Moss explained, as the glider dived, then slowly surfaced again, that the machine is controlled by a servo motor run by AAA batteries.
“Nice flight! Swimming like a fish,” Juneau Economic Development Council Science, Technology, Engineering and Math specialist Bob Vieth said, watching the glider.
The glider’s servo motor turns a large screw that pushes and pulls a syringe inside that sucks in or forces out water, causing the glider to move. Weights inside move as well, which triggers the diving and surfacing.
Each student’s glider was contained by a 16-ounce blue water bottle. The students outfitted the bottles with white wings and a tail much like an airplane’s, all custom-made.
Two campers were pretty certain about their careers. “I want to be an engineer,” Moss said. Dillon Coville, another camper entering seventh grade this fall, but at Schoenbar Middle School, also said that he wants to be an engineer. “I like building,” he said. He also is interested in aeronautics and cars, he said. Campers Alex Wick and Jake Newell worked on their gliders, adjusting them, checking solders and sharing advice. They also will be entering seventh grade at Schoenbar.
The students created smaller projects at the camp before tackling the more complex gliders, Vieth said. They learned soldering on a “breadboard,” which is a surface to make an experimental model of an electrical circuit. They also practiced programming with a “calculator bot,” which used a large Texas Instruments calculator to program its movements.
The campers create “bristle bots” by attaching vibrator motors to toothbrush heads and a battery and strapping them together with a rubber band. When activated, the little robots hummed and zipped around like insects. Some students modified the design by attaching the parts in different configurations, laughing when they veered and bumped in new ways.
Jordan Anderson, another seventh-grader just about to enter Schoenbar, said he had taken apart four old cell phones the night before to salvage the vibrator motors. “I’ll take things apart and use the parts I know about,” he said.
Campers, engineers, parents, curious onlookers and Schoenbar science teacher Frankie Urquhart and her family gathered poolside at the Mike Smithers Community Pool Friday. Campers seemed transfixed by the sight of their creations finally getting the space to stretch the programs they’d labored over.
Anderson said that by adjusting the tail of the glider, the programmer can create different travel paths, even making the vehicle turn in a circle to come back to its starting spot.
Harney said that the AUVs used by scientists can carry any type of sensor, but usually have a GPS unit on board so that after making a long dive, it can be located when it surfaces again, and data read from its sensors. Common data collected, he said, is temperature, salinity and oxygen saturation. He said there is the possibility the AUVs could even be used to track tagged marine animals.
The AUVs travel in long ocean tracks, using technology very similar to the gliders that the campers made. Vieth said that the camp is a very special one for Ketchikan, because it is the first camp ever done like this, nationwide.
The Navy’s SEAFAC facility made Ketchikan a logical place to start, and Vieth said that they have plans to launch a “Marine Acoustics Camp” next summer, featuring the SEAFAC site. Tyson Tuchscherer, a microbiologist and U.S. Navy education specialist and Michael Britt-Crane, a mechanical engineer at the Naval Surface Warfare Center also taught at the camp.
Ratcliffe said that the National Defense Education Program’s goal is to educate young people through outreach programs to local communities. Juneau was hosting its own Underwater Gliders camp this week, Vieth said.
The Juneau Economic Development Council’s STEM program hosts several camps, workshops and classes each year. Vieth said he is quite eager to teach his own camp next week in Juneau, “Kitchen Science,” which will be for elementary- aged students.
Ratcliffe said providing materials and programs is one way of achieving her department’s goals, and she will be providing Schoenbar and Ketchikan Charter School’s middle schoolers with 10 Arduino Inventor kits each free of charge this year. She said that training for Ketchikan teachers also is planned, and Schoenbar science teacher Urquhart said she plans to incorporate the Arduino kits into her classes.
Vieth and Ratcliffe said that middle school age seems to be the perfect time for students to be introduced to STEM projects and training. They are old enough to tackle complex tasks, but not so old that their minds are closed to new ideas or career opportunities. “This has been one of the best group of kids I’ve ever worked with, and I’ve been doing these workshops a long time,” Vieth said.