Robotics on the Water

Students from the Providence Career and Technical Academy High School participate in Robotics on the Water event. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Students from the Providence Career and Technical Academy High School participate in Robotics on the Water event. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Ninth graders shuffled in to a lab room at the Providence Career and Technical Academy High School on a Friday morning. They would be in lab roughly six straight hours – what would normally be considered a dull day for your average high school student. But most students aren’t working with Coast Guard missions … and robots.

Pre-engineering students at the Providence Career and Technical Academy had the unique opportunity to develop STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – skills in an aquatic robotics design and build competition sponsored by the U.S. Coast Guard Academy.

A robot designed during the Robotics on the Water event. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

A robot designed during the Robotics on the Water event. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

The academy’s Robotics on the Water event is designed to provide a contextual learning opportunity for pre-engineering students at the Providence Career and Technical Academy. In addition to learning more about engineering from Coast Guard cadets, students were mentored by more seasoned engineers from the Coast Guard Civil Engineering Unit Warwick, R.I.

“This immersive one-day program is designed to demonstrate that engineering can be thrilling and to inspire participants to consider a STEM degree and career,” said Lt. Lars Tormey of the Coast Guard’s civil engineering unit in Warwick.

With robots chasing down “drug dealers” and responding to “oil spills,” thrilling was certainly the word of the day. Jordan Silva, one of the participants was in engineering class when he was first informed about the event. He admitted he “wasn’t too thrilled” about the day because he was “uneducated about the Coast Guard.” Despite this, he signed up to try it out. A decision he does not regret.

“Long story short, by the end of the day that was the best experience I’ve had in all 2013 to 2014,” said Silva. “I had the most fun of everyone I think.”

Students worked in teams, accompanied by a cadet mentor and a senior engineer, to build remote-controlled robotic boats that could perform various simulated Coast Guard missions, such as search and rescue, counter narcotics and oil spill response. The missions took place in a pool that was constructed specifically for the day of competition.

Silva noted the materials he had to use were limited but then added having too few parts was “perfect” and really had his “brain up and thinking, filled with ideas.”

“I was able to use my imagination and work cooperatively with my team,” said Silva.

Points were accumulated throughout the day-long competition until the highest-scoring team prevailed. And while it was certainly exhilarating to gather the most points, the competition also promoted awareness of Coast Guard missions, the marine trades and future STEM-oriented service opportunities.

“I was first really inspired to build robots when I saw what robots were doing and how they were helping not just in the U.S. but all over,” wrote Jordan Silva after he participated in the event.

“I’m looking forward to go into the Coast Guard when I’m out of high school,” said participant Maria Lopez. “I had fun driving the boat; loved building it too. I actually had so much fun that day, I enjoyed it.”

The only bad thing about the day according to Silva? The day was too short.CGA

This is the first partnership between the Coast Guard Academy and its local civil engineering unit. It is hoped that the Coast Guard engineers will provide technical mentoring to PCTA students throughout the year and that future competitions will consist of multiple local high school teams.

By partnering with STEM-oriented organizations, the Coast Guard is making a difference in the lives of many talented young Americans whether they decide to serve or not.

“This is a shining example of industry partnership support for our career and technical education programs, which build relationships, provide relevance and real world context for academic learning,” said Luke Driver, director of Career and Technical Education for Providence Public Schools. “We look forward to beginning a long-term relationship between PCTA and the Coast Guard Academy that will broaden horizons for our students, many of whom have had limited or no exposure to our coastal waterways.”

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