Students dive into engineering at Rowan University event


An air of anticipation filled Rowan University’s Esbjornson gym in April, as a crowd of spectators waited to see how middle and high school students’ underwater robots — built through an innovative engineering program — would perform in South Jersey’s first Regional SeaPerch Competition.

An air of anticipation filled Rowan University’s Esbjornson gym in April, as a crowd of spectators waited to see how middle and high school students’ underwater robots — built through an innovative engineering program — would perform in South Jersey’s first Regional SeaPerch Competition.

During this event, coordinated by the Rowan University College of Engineering and the Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) in Lakehurst, N.J., students, parents and teachers packed the bleachers. They cheered on the student teams throughout the day as they took their turns at the edge of the pool, breathlessly peering through the water to watch their robots proceed through their paces.

Submersible Science

A national organization founded in 2007, SeaPerch enables middle and high school students to build underwater remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) from inexpensive kits and learn about science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) in the process.

NAVAIR became involved in the program a few years ago. “I really fell in love with the idea of the robot,” said Gaetan Mangano, Technology Transfer Office site lead and Education Outreach site lead at the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division (NAWCAD) in Lakehurst. “It was a very simple robot and very hands on. It taught students a multitude of things, ranging from buoyancy to propulsion systems to soldering to tethering to a remote control.”

Mangano and William Borkowski, NAWCAD education outreach coordinators, soon began training area teachers to share the program in their schools, and last December Mangano became the Central New Jersey SeaPerch coordinator, charged with the task of organizing South Jersey’s first regional competition within the next three months.

With a longstanding history of partnering with the Rowan University College of Engineering, Mangano and Borkowski, event co-chairs, approached Dr. Anthony Lowman, dean, about holding the event at Rowan. Little did they know that Lowman had already been involved with SeaPerch at his previous institution and was a strong supporter of the program.

“It’s a great opportunity for middle and high school students to be engaged in engineering,” Lowman said. “It meets the mission of the College to reach out to these students and help increase the STEM pipeline.”

Unfolding Event

This year’s event, which drew dozens of students, included four types of assessments: speed trials and obstacle course navigation in the pool and creativity and engineering evaluations in the nearby College of Engineering building.

Student teams learned about engineering and teamwork and shared their input as they built their robots. “We started off with a base model and we added onto it. We tried to make it as hydrodynamic as possible,” said Millville Memorial High School freshman Robert Smith.

Teammate Joseph Nelson, also a freshman at the school, eagerly looked forward to the event. “I’m excited to see how it performs because we all helped with the design,” he said.

Rowan student volunteers circulated throughout the poolside area with clipboards, serving as judges and helping with other tasks.

One of the volunteers, Rowan senior chemical engineering major Sarah Gettings from Runnemede, N.J., recalled her own SeaPerch days four years ago, when she was a senior at Paul VI High School in Haddonfield, N.J. Just before her school’s regional event, she had chosen to major in engineering, and the competition reinforced her decision. “I knew this was what I wanted to do,” she said. “I liked working with my hands, getting in there and troubleshooting. If something goes wrong, you have to get in there and fix it on the spot.”

Millville Memorial High School principal Stephanie DeRose praised the program for teaching students teambuilding and engineering skills. “Just from the information I have received on this program, these kids, as well as the staff who are working with them, have been committed to this program and every aspect of it,” she said.

Enduring Benefits

Groups that participated in the event were: Burlington School District, U.S. Sea Cadet Lakehurst Squadron, Manchester School District, Harrington SeaPerch Club in Mt. Laurel, Marine Academy of Technology and Environmental Science (MATES) in Ocean County, Lacey Township School District, NJ ROTC Colts Neck Cadets and Millville School District.

Burlington School District’s Sea Knights, a middle school team, and the MATES high school team took top honors and will have the opportunity to compete at the National SeaPerch competition in Indianapolis, Ind. However, all students who participated were winners.

Beyond the many skills they demonstrated, students exhibited a high level of sportsmanship. Although only six schools participated in the finals, Borkowski said, everyone cheered on their competitors at the final competition and stayed for the judging ceremony. “The auditorium was packed,” he said.

Students also gained a sense of accomplishment from building the ROVs. “I think what the students enjoy about it is that it’s something that they’re capable of doing and they can be successful at it, and this encourages them to go into math, science and engineering and be successful. SeaPerch offers them that opportunity,” Mangano said.

“It’s something they don’t get to experience by just sitting in a physics class, math class or even a robotics class,” Lowman said. “It puts them all together, and they get to work with professional engineers.”

With the conclusion of this year’s competition, Mangano and Borkowski already are planning for next year, seeking to get more schools involved. “We want to grow this event,” Borkowski said.


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