By Ron Leir
On May 18, a group of Nutley High School students will be going down to the sea (of sorts) … in robots.
It’s all due to the U.S. Navy and Ken Bania, the school district’s science coordinator, with a big assist from physics teachers Michael Naumoff and Marc Kasner.
The students are participating in the 2013 National SeaPerch Challenge, a competition that engages students in “engineering concepts, problem solving, teamwork, and technical applications” in an underwater robotics program, according to a Navy fact sheet.
The Navy, in partnership with the Association for Underwater Vehicle Systems International Foundation, furnishes students with a kit of resources which they use to build a “Remotely Operated Vehicle” – ROV in Navy parlance – and guide it through a series of underwater maneuvers. Massachusetts Institute of Technology helped found the program in 2003.
Judges grade students on the basis of performance, design, oral presentation, planning and team spirit.
Bania brought the idea of NHS experimenting with the program to Principal Denis Williams after seeing a SeaPerch demonstration at a National Science Teachers seminar in Atlantic City in May 2012.
Williams agreed, noting that SeaPerch is linked to a U.S. Department of Education “national initiative” aimed at encouraging more students to explore paths that may lead to future careers in the science, technology, engineering and math fields.
After getting their ROV kits earlier this year, students from different grade levels in the NHS engineering club put in many after-school hours assembling their robot (a contraption of PVC pipe and motors which weighs in at a little more than two pounds), testing out design features, then putting it through its underwater paces, in the school’s outdoor koi pool.
Nutley sent three teams to a preliminary regional competition March 25 at the City College of New York’s Mahoney Pool in the basement of the Marshak Science Building on W. 138th St., and a seven-member team led by senior Nick Sherer and junior Gabe Tortora – who are teammates on the Maroon Raiders gridiron squad was deemed good enough to advance to the nationals, Williams said.
It all began a bit more than three months ago, recalled 17-year-old junior Monica Bobila, when “they provided us with the raw materials and instructions” and the students took it from there.
“It took us about a month to tweak [the ROV] to the point where we felt it was ready,” Gabe, 17, said.
Senior Laurence Rafer, 17, recalled that the rules permitted the students “to build onto the basic specifications,” to some extent. They could spend up to $20 on modifications, Naumoff said.
This team’s modification was described by Rafer as a “detachable retractable hook” which could be manipulated through the ROV to capture and remove rings.
The other team members are juniors Zohaeb Atiq and A.J. Fernandez, both 17; and seniors Andrew Allison, 18, and Nick Sherer, 17.
For the upcoming competition – which will be held in the Olympic Pool in the Natatorium on the campus of Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis – students from more than 100 high school and middle school teams from around the nation will be expected to maneuver their ROVs through two trials.
First, they’ll guide the robots through an underwater obstacle course, through hoops oriented in different directions; next, they’ll direct the robots – again, underwater – to a rack set up with rings which the robots must remove and place in baskets set at different levels, all of which must be done within a fixed time limit.
“The bigger picture here,” Williams said, “is I want, eventually, all our science classes moving this way, maybe incorporating some type of problem-solving learning activity [because] learning comes from feedback when you fail.”
Williams said he’s hoping to get more faculty to “buy in” to this concept of more experimentation.
Asked if more students were “buying in” to the sciences as a post-graduate option, Williams said that the school doesn’t follow up on every student once they’ve completed their academic obligations, but he added: “Of the top 10% of our graduating class, there seems to be a growing number pursuing careers in math and science.”