Mt. Ararat High School juniors, from left, Alyssa Moody, Ben Humphrey and Hudson Holden stand with the underwater robot they built and will compete with in the 2021 International SeaPerch Challenge in early June.

Three Mt. Ararat High School juniors are using their engineering skills to compete in an international underwater robot-building contest in early June.

The SeaPerch competition was canceled in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic and started late this year in a virtual format for the first time. The program equips students with resources to build an underwater remotely operated vehicle.

Juniors Hudson Holden, Ben Humphrey and Alyssa Moody built a robot last school year but didn’t test it after the contest was canceled.

This year they are looking for redemption, Moody said, and earlier this month, they won the Northern New England competition.

Now they are preparing for the virtual international competition on June 4-5 in which more than 400 high school teams are competing.

“Instead of the traditional obstacle course challenge, this year we decided to tackle the real-world problem challenge in which we design and build a robot to tackle a real-world problem,” said Holden.

He and his teammates found that problem through science classwork at the Cathance River Preserve located near the Topsham high school. Holden said while studying a fen, a wetland ecosystem at the preserve, he found it was difficult to collect water samples using normal techniques without breaking through moss and damaging the ecosystem.

Mt. Ararat High School junior Ben Humphrey makes repairs Tuesday to the underwater robot he built with two other juniors for an engineering competition. Darcie Moore / The Times Record

“So we made a robot to do it,” Holden said.

The three named themselves the Fen-Tastic Four and consider the robot their fourth member.

The young engineers said it took a lot of trial and error to find a design that worked. There have been two or three previous prototypes that didn’t work. Their workspace in the new high school has a whiteboard covered in notes and design sketches.

The team got a basic robot kit that included PVC piping, the controller, wiring and three motors and propellers. Humphrey said unlike robots for the obstacle course challenge, this robot didn’t have to be fast and nimble. Instead, it’s light and long so it doesn’t get snagged while underwater.

They needed a robot to fit in tight spaces, Holden added. The students spent the most time designing two water collection mechanisms so their robot can take water samples underwater whether tethered to the remote control or not.

They used a 3D printer to design and make components out of plastic to make the robot buoyant. The students then had to figure out how to wire a fourth motor to the controller circuit board to power the water collection mechanism.

“I like engineering and problem solving,” Hudson said. “I think it’s fun and I want to do it later in life.”

Moody said since she had a STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) class in middle school but not since. SeaPerch gives her an outlet to hone and test her engineering capabilities, she said.

From the engineering to the interview, the students are developing a range of life skills they will apply to college and their future careers, said Mt. Ararat science teacher and mentor Glenn Evans.

“Some of their techniques could get applied to an instrument that could really be used commercially in the future,” Evans said. “That whole aspect of being the first to come up with something and to put it together, to make it functional, is just very fulfilling.”

Since 2011, the SeaPerch program has expanded to reach students in over 35 countries and all 50 U.S. states. More than 250,000 students engage in the program annually through grassroots programs, competitions, and training activities.

Mt. Ararat High School juniors Alyssa Moody and Judson Holden explain how their underwater robot collects a water sample and pushes it through tubing into a large syringe, which is just one of the ways it collects water samples. Darcie Moore / The Times Record

At right, Mt. Ararat High School junior Hudson Holden explains how his team’s underwater robot works as teammate Ben Humphrey looks on. Darcie Moore / The Times Record

 

 


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