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NEWS | Aug. 30, 2023

Summer programs at NUWC Division Newport teach students about engineering and teamwork

By NUWC Division Newport Public Affairs

When high school students arrive at the Naval Undersea Warfare Center (NUWC) Division Newport each summer to work alongside scientists and engineers for the Undersea Technology Apprentice Program (UTAP), they usually don’t know each other or much about underwater robotics. That changes quickly.

Held in two, three-week sessions, Monday through Thursday, in Division Newport's Undersea Collaboration and Technology Outreach Center, the 25 students in each session are randomly sorted into five teams of five students. Once in teams, the students assign themselves specific roles and responsibilities.

“A big part of the program is the social engineering aspect — how they come together as a team,” said program instructor Dr. John DiCecco, an engineer in the Undersea Warfare Platforms and Payload Integration Department. “It can depend on people’s personalities. If one personality dominates, it can affect the entire team. This can happen in the real world, so it teaches them how to deal with it.”

DiCecco helped create the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) program in its current format 11 years ago with Candida Desjardins, who retired on March 31, as the director of Educational Outreach. Christopher Hansen, has picked up the reins as the new Division Newport director of educational programs, in which students gain valuable insights by working with advanced technology while developing real-world applications of science and math lessons learned at school.

This year, more than 26 public and private high schools were represented at both UTAP sessions combined. Most of the students attend schools in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, but schools as far away as New York, New Jersey, Texas, and California were also represented.

Each day from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., the students design, build, test and modify underwater remotely operated vehicles (ROV). Each team is provided a set of specifications to build a basic ROV with instructions from SeaPerch, an international program which UTAP is based upon. Teams are also given a budget for materials, which impacts how they design and make changes to their vehicles.

“The teams will gravitate to a certain design,” Hansen said. “The biggest variations we usually see is where they place the thrusters, based on what they want the motors to do.”

Once built, Hansen has the students practice driving their vehicles in a 4,000 gallon tank of water set up outside of Building 80, to prepare for a timed competition, which is held on the second to last day of each session.

“Driving is the toughest part, but they can practice it in the tank anytime,” Hansen said.

During the competition, each team member must spend an equal amount of time steering the vehicle. What makes maneuvering the ROV especially difficult during the competition is the tank is covered with a tarp, forcing the drivers to relying on a video feed captured by a camera the team attaches to their vehicle.

Each team is scored on how well their ROV performs four tasks — opening a door, reading a name off a vessel, picking up weights and putting them on a platform, and using a compass to park the vehicle facing in a certain direction.

The students can make changes to their ROVs until just before the final competition in order to resolve problems and improve performance, applying principles from electrical, computer, mechanical, and ocean engineering.

“We had some problems with our vehicle, but we seemed to fix most of them,” Elijah Stolyarov, a rising junior at North Kingstown High School in Rhode Island, said. “One of our motors for instance, was tipping to one side and we couldn’t get the vehicle balanced. We learned that water got into it, so not only was it unbalanced because of the extra weight, but it was also fried from the water and we needed to replace it.”

Ita Carrigg, a rising senior at Dartmouth High School in Massachusetts, had a similar problem.

“It was a little difficult to maneuver,” she said. “The vehicle kept going up, so finding the balance of buoyancy and getting it to dive was definitely a challenge.”

Buoyancy was one of the issues addressed by Heather Williams’ team.

“We added motors, we added pieces of foam noodles for extra buoyancy, and we changed the coding to make the controller easier to use,” said Williams, a rising junior from Portsmouth High School, whose father Michael is a retired Division Newport mechanical engineer.

Hansen, DiCecco and other mentors are available to answer questions and provide feedback throughout the process, but each encourages the students to try to find solutions by working though problems, just as real engineers do.

“I’ve taken three engineering classes in school, including one that was robotics related,” Steve Soares, a rising senior at Mt. Hope High School in Bristol, Rhode Island, said. “I’ve learned more about robotics in this program than in school because of how hands-on it is and how much the instructors let us be creative. Our team did two complete redesigns. Our first model was triangular in shape. It looked like a spaceship, but we couldn’t make the design work. We changed the shape closer to the original box shape, we made it smaller, we removed a net we were using, and we added a hook in its place.”

While solving problems and attempting to achieve a common goal, the students learned the importance of communication and teamwork.

“We all worked really well together,” Soares said. “Everyone was a good listener and we collaborated effectively. It’s been fun getting to know the other people in my group, especially since we’re all from different schools.” 

The program introduced some career possibilities that the students might not have considered previously.

“I’ve had some experience with robotics, but not underwater robotics,” said Vinay Vetticaden, a rising senior from Canyon Crest Academy in San Diego, California, who is visiting family on Aquidneck Island this summer. “This experience made me start thinking about career paths related to submarines and underwater robotics.”

On the final day of each three-week session, DiCecco talks with the students about what they learned, what they liked, and what they didn’t like about the program. That information, coupled with student performance, is used to make small changes to next year’s course.

“We’re always making changes from session-to-session and year-to-year,” DiCecco said. “We usually have to make things harder to remain slightly ahead of their abilities.”

The program wraps up with the announcement of the winning team, which is decided from results of the underwater competition, a score on a design notebook where students chronicle their workflow processes, and a final report describing what they learned.

“There have been teams that have lost in the tank, but won the overall competition because they nailed the notebook and report,” Hansen said. “But usually the teams that are meticulous with their notebook and report are also meticulous in designing and testing their underwater vehicle.

Because of the success of the program during the past decade, UTAP attracts the interest of some of the top-performing high school students in Southeastern New England and beyond. The application process makes sure the students are a proper fit for the program.

“There are a lot of kids who are very interested and invested in the program. I think a lot of it goes into how we vet the kids during the application process,” DiCecco said. “Students are required to submit a letter of recommendation, school transcripts, and write three essays on engineering topics including why they want to participate in the program. There are only so many kids we can accept, so we try to pick those who are excited and interested in the work that will be done.”

Many students who attend UTAP are in the later stages of their high school career and are preparing for college by gaining valuable hands-on learning opportunities. This summer, the two UTAP sessions hosted a total of 19 seniors, 21 juniors, and 10 sophomores.

The 401 Tech Bridge partners with Division Newport to introduce teens to the program and manage the grant that supports UTAP. The 401 Tech Bridge encourages future students to apply and assists with the purchasing of equipment and materials. Application instructions are posted to Division Newport’s external website in February, with a submission deadline usually on March 31.

“Having a program that engages students early on, exposes them to real-world missions where they can develop and apply their engineering skills and work collaboratively in teams to solve complex problems, is invaluable,” said Linda Larsen, manager of Programs and Partnerships at 401 Tech Bridge. “We need to build our next generation of Navy engineers and scientists, and the UTAP program is making this happen.” 

Division Newport also takes part in two other summer programs, the Summer Adventure Camp at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Center in Newport, Rhode Island, and the Sea Lab Robotics program held at Sea Lab Marine Science Education Center in New Bedford, Massachusetts.

The MLK camp teaches elementary and middle school students “STEM-in-a-box” classes in which they discuss different topics related to engineering, circuits, chemistry, physics and rockets, to promote interest in STEM fields. Each class provides hands-on activities and elements of problem-solving.

The Robotics program at Sea Lab teaches high school students from Massachusetts’ Greater New Bedford area, including New Bedford High School, New Bedford Vocational, Fairhaven, and Dartmouth. The Sea Lab summer program itself serves students from kindergarten through Grade 9.

In the program, students learn how to build ROVs over the course of eight weeks and concludes with a competition on the final day. Throughout the program, they learn about programming, circuits, gears, chain, sprockets, types of wheels, lifts, arms, motors, and controllers.

A video is posted here: 

NUWC Newport is the oldest warfare center in the country, tracing its heritage to the Naval Torpedo Station established on Goat Island in Newport Harbor in 1869. Commanded by Capt. Chad Hennings, NUWC Newport maintains major detachments in West Palm Beach, Florida, and Andros Island in the Bahamas, as well as test facilities at Seneca Lake and Fisher's Island, New York, Leesburg, Florida, and Dodge Pond, Connecticut.

Join our team! NUWC Division Newport, one of the 20 largest employers in Rhode Island, employs a diverse, highly trained, educated, and skilled workforce. We are continuously looking for engineers, scientists, and other STEM professionals, as well as talented business, finance, logistics and other support experts who wish to be at the forefront of undersea research and development. Please connect with NUWC Division Newport Recruiting at this site- and follow us on LinkedIn @NUWC-Newport and on Facebook @NUWCNewport.