KEYPORT, Wash. (NNS) -- The Naval Undersea Warfare Center (NUWC) Keyport Division’s Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) outreach program is working to inspire students to blossom into the next generation of technology leaders.
NUWC Keyport partners with Puget Sound Naval Shipyard and Intermediate Maintenance Facility (PSNS & IMF), engaging local schools through the STEM program in order to introduce students to various science and technology fields, such as undersea robotics, and hopefully inspire them to pursue careers in technology and engineering.
Sam De Lano, NUWC Keyport’s STEM coordinator, said the program is tailored to meet the educational needs and capabilities of students in various grades. NUWC Keyport and PSNS &IMF work with 46 schools in the Puget Sound area, allowing the commands an opportunity to reach a diverse student population. Using robotics as an example, De Lano said the youngest students are fourth graders, and they are mentored in projects such as bristlebots—simple robots built from toothbrushes and other parts that can be built on their classroom desks. Older students are coached in more advanced work, such as building an underwater vehicle.
“When it comes to the younger students, it is important to keep things fun and engaging,” said De Lano. “The bristlebot spins around, moves across the table, just stuff that they have fun with; but it also teaches them basic concepts, like trial and error, how electricity flows, etc.”
Students begin working on remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) in fifth grade, and are progressively challenged as they get older.
“We talk about ROVs and how they’ve been helpful in the past. We ask them what they think an ROV can be used for. We talk briefly about the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and how ROVs were instrumental in stopping the leak, in exploring the Titanic, those things,” said De Lano. “They have to start thinking about things like vehicle ballast, force, and thruster placement on ROVs. They have three or four; how can they use them to turn their vehicle left or right, go forwards or backwards, or up and down?”
Dr. Dawn Grebner, a bio acoustician at NUWC Keyport, enjoys the chance to inspire students because she never had the opportunity to be coached like this as a child.
“I did not have opportunities like the Navy ROV program when I was a kid,” said Grebner. “Navy personnel with different careers attend the ROV classes. While we are trying to walk the kids through the cycle of the ROV development, hopefully they learn from us that when you work in a team, people specialize to make the whole project successful, i.e., each kid does not have to succeed alone.”
5th grade ROV builds are a three-day event. De Lano said the first day introduces the students to the project and discusses subjects such as how and why ROVs are structured the way they are. The kids then design and build their ROV, attaching thrusters and testing the vehicle. On day two, students are given a buoyancy demonstration showing how the weights of different materials affect their buoyancy. They complete their vehicles by getting them neutrally buoyant. On day three, the students operate their vehicles in a pool while striving to navigate various challenges.
“This paints us in a good light to the community. They see what we’re willing to invest,” said De Lano. We take care of everything, all the supplies, all the tools, the technical support. We make it easier on them to teach kids these basic STEM principles. When we come out, we’re the Navy.”
Grebner said the local schools also benefit from having the Navy engage the students. The resources the Navy provides and the chance for the students to interact with people from many different disciplines, create an environment that encourages learning.
“The ROV program, as an example, provides a multi-faceted learning opportunity. The students get to design, build, and test their ROVs,” said Grebner. “The kids try to visually conceptualize their ROV designs by working in groups, and then physically try to create their drawings. Students often face many successes and failures along the way. They are analyzing and solving problems, while having fun, too!”
Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA), NUWC Keyport’s parent command, maintains a strategic plan called “Campaign Plan 2.0” that challenges all parts of NAVSEA to find ways that improve the warfighting capability of ships and submarines and equip the NAVSEA and Navy workforce with state-of-the-art tools, all while maintaining a culture of affordability. STEM outreach in local schools might not seem like a way of fulfilling those goals, but Bryce Weber, an applied technology lead system engineer in NUWC Keyport’s Rapid Prototyping and Fabrication Technology Department, says the outreach expands the advantage the Navy has by opening pathways into technological fields, including potential employment with the Department of the Navy.
“As a STEM mentor, I had the rewarding opportunity to help kids exercise their understanding of real-world challenges seen with underwater vehicles,” said Weber. “During the event, I had a blast playing different roles: design consultant, manufacturing expert, and testing supervisor. As the students modified their vehicles, we were able to discover - in real time - how those design tradeoffs changed their vehicle’s ability to perform the different missions. This is the kind of learning that excites students to consider technological careers.”
The ability to learn from failure and yet still persevere is one of the key takeaways STEM mentors want students to gain from STEM activities. As the challenges increase, so does the importance of being able to overcome failure until success is reached at last, Weber said.
Michael Davis, an engineering technician in NUWC Keyport’s Test and Evaluation Department, said the STEM program is not limited to middle and high school. The program extends to the college level as well, which gives NUWC Keyport a chance to not only inspire college students, but potentially recruit them as well.
“When I go to schools and tell kids what we do for a living, they get very excited every single time. In addition, there is always at least one kid that will ask us how they could do this job for a living, so it is very inspiring to at least a couple kids, to give them hope, dreams, and goals in life,” said Davis. “We often recruit at colleges and find people who were inspired by others at young ages. We have the chance to gain individuals that love their job and want to succeed while raising the bar of current technologies.”
For more news from Naval Undersea Warfare Center Division, Keyport, visit www.navy.mil/local/nuwcd/.