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Navy STEM professionals support local teachers

Toby Ratcliffe (seated left) and John Wright (standing) assist Zeke Miller with construction of his Sea Perch underwater ROV during Sea Perch Teacher Training. (Click for larger image and remainder of cutline) Remotely-operated underwater vehicle kit highlights multiple skills

Training the trainer is a familiar concept for service members and civilian employees in the Department of Defense (DoD). Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) professionals who work for the Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) accomplished a community-minded version of this mission when they conducted Sea Perch Teacher Training for local educators at the University of Mary Washington Dahlgren Campus on Aug. 20. The Sea Perch is a remotely-operated, underwater vehicle that teachers can include in their curriculum to foster students’ interest and skills in STEM subjects. Through grants by the National Defense Education Program (NDEP) and Naval Sea Systems Command's Virginia Demonstration Project (VDP), teachers can receive Sea Perch kits for in-class or extra-curricular learning.

Building a Sea Perch remotely-operated vehicle (ROV) is designed to be a hands-on experience that not only incorporates STEM concepts, but also challenges students to build a deceptively simple piece of technology using power drills and soldering irons. Students first build a frame from PVC piping which must allow water to enter for ballast. Students then water-proof and mount three small electric motors to the PVC frame and solder them to a circuit board, which is fashioned into a controller.

Even for veteran teachers used to interacting with students in science labs, supervising and evaluating such a project can be a daunting prospect. Sea Perch Teacher training gives educators a chance to build and familiarize themselves with the Sea Perch kit, while allowing them the chance to troubleshoot the build process with Navy STEM professionals.

“I hope this stimulates interest in the kids,” said Rick Harmon, an earth and environmental science teacher for Rappahannock High School. Harmon admitted he was no expert when it comes to soldering, but by the end of the training session he was convinced that using such tools and techniques would in fact fostered interest and learning among students.

The Navy engineer in charge of the teacher training is no stranger to underwater ROVs and STEM education. Toby Ratcliffe is an ocean engineer assigned to the Naval Surface Warfare Center (NSWC) Carderock Division and proud mom of two STEM-literate children, now grown. The Sea Perch Master Trainer was enthusiastic as she presented teachers the ins and outs of the program.

For the educators' tool box

“I think the most valuable piece is teaching teachers and their partner engineers and STEM professionals how to build a Sea Perch and having them take it back to the class room,” said Ratcliffe. “Those teachers are already closely working with students and now they have a chance to inspire their pupils in a different direction, or in another part of the direction they were already going. This program is so cool because kids are learning new skills… things like soldering and cutting PVC, but also things like troubleshooting.”

Of course, STEM skills are not the be all and end all of education. Teamwork, task delegation, deadlines organization and perseverance are only few of the intangible life skills fostered through Sea Perch. “If something doesn’t work [for a student building a Sea Perch] it’s not that it was bad luck; instead, it is because [the student] didn’t soldered a joint well enough,” said Ratcliffe. “They can go back and re-solder it and it will work. With Sea Perch Teacher Training, teachers and technologists are guided along that process.”

All of the Navy STEM professionals expressed respect for the job teachers undertake. The hope is that Sea Perch can be another tool in the educators’ tool box, one that can be tailored to fit a variety of academic circumstances.

“I look at this very clearly as teachers exposing students to new skills and getting them to reach farther, getting them to understand it’s okay to make mistakes and getting them to expand their ideas about what they can be when they grow up,” said Ratcliffe.

Some of the advice put forward sounds like it comes from a professional educator. During one phase of the Sea Perch build that requires soldering part of a circuit board, Ratcliffe noted that the proper solders should look like Hershey Kisses. Ratcliffe suggested teachers bring in a bag of real Hershey Kisses to reward students who achieve the correct soldering results.

While she has no teaching jobs on her resume, Ratcliffe began advocating STEM education years ago, when she started a parent-scientist group at the school her children attended at the time. “I watched these amazing teachers and I tried to learn as much as I can from them,” she said. “I’m not a teacher but I love it… I love to help teachers as a partner.”

John Wright, assigned to the technology office for NSWC Dahlgren Division, hoped Sea Perch would help teachers carrying out their vital and sometimes difficult task. “I think it can be challenging for teachers,” he said. “But they really enjoy it and they’re highly-motivated. I think this program is new to [these] teachers, but based off of what we’ve seen, I think they’ll all give [Sea Perch] a try.”

It's about sustainability

For Alan Dean, head of Naval Surface Warfare Center's Workforce Directorate and lead action officer for NAVSEA's Integrated Business Operations Team for student engagement and outreach, helping educators accomplish their mission is a vital part of the Navy’s participation in STEM outreach.

“The importance of teaching the teacher is sustainability,” he said. “We can go in and inject ourselves and for that moment, the kids are excited. But we need those kids to be excited year after year. The way you do that is stimulating excitement in the teacher who is there year after year. So we partner with teachers to ensure we sustain the concept.”

Sea Perch was well on its way to fostering that kind of sustainability in Ameer Mir, information technologist with Westmorland County Public Schools. Mir was optimistic about Sea Perch at the beginning of teacher training. “I think the fact that it’s hands-on, that it’s something a lot of the students haven’t done in our rural area, will be a good draw,” he said. “Some students are not very good at learning by the book, but by teaching them hands-on, they are going to be learning the same things the books teach. I think that’s where the big benefit is going to be.”

Mir cited his own academic history as a case in point for hands-on learning. “Personally, I was not very good at English; it wasn’t my first language,” he said. “I was good at doing things; allowing students to do things is what is going to bring about the greatest change in their lives.”

After building Sea Perch ROVs, the teachers, technologists and school volunteers were able to test the fruits of their labors in a small makeshift pool outside the UMW Dahlgren Campus. Ideas flowed between educators. What Sea Perch tasks should they challenge students with? Can Sea Perch tasks be relevant to current affairs? Should Sea Perch construction be an in-school or after-school activity? Questions about incorporating Sea Perch in the classroom and participating with Navy STEM professionals, however, were settled.

“It’s a great opportunity,” said Mir, smiling as he maneuvered his ROV around the pool. “If anything, I’m even more excited now. We have our final product and I really like the process that we went through and the breakdown of each stage and each unit. I’m really excited about it.”

 Related Images

 Ameer Mir, technologist for Westmoreland County Public Schools, smiles as his Sea Perch takes its first dive. (Click for larger image).
These electronic components may not be what comes to mind when one thinks of school supplies, but building Sea Perch underwater ROVs is a hands-on process designed to inspire as well as teach. (Click for larger image).
Simon Gray (r.), production manager for DDG 1000 program for NAVSEA, helps Emily Driver, science teacher at Locust Grove Middle School, build her Sea Perch underwater ROV. (Click for larger image).

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