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NUWC Division Newport STEM summer program maneuvers new course during coronavirus pandemic

By NUWC Division Newport Public Affairs | Sept. 18, 2020


Despite the many challenges resulting from the coronavirus pandemic, the Naval Undersea Warfare Center (NUWC) Division Newport Educational Outreach Program continued offering hands-on STEM training to 41 high school students this summer as part of its well-known Undersea Technology Apprentice Program (UTAP) in which students build and test underwater vehicles.

Modified procedures to ensure social distancing and schedule changes were key areas affected.

“When a lot of things were being cancelled in March, I wanted to see what would happen come June. There was hesitancy to cancel so far in advance,” Educational Outreach Director Candida Desjardins said. “So we decided to figure out ways that we could adapt what we’re doing to maintain social distancing and keep the kids in a better setup for success, but still do something in person.”

There were enough program applicants to operate two smaller sessions of four, five-hour days, instead of the traditional five, four-hour days, to allow one day off to help mitigate germs, Desjardins said. Also, the start of UTAP was delayed until July from the typical June start.

Students signed a code of conduct form before the program began that explained the need to wear a mask if within six feet of others. Temperatures were taken and students answered health questions when they came each day to the state-of-the-art Undersea Collaboration and Technology Outreach Center (UCTOC). Students were placed in socially distanced groups of three and given plenty of hand sanitizer and antibacterial wipes. Air filters were placed throughout the room and tools were wiped down after each person used them. A large ultraviolet sanitation box was built to sterilize sensitive equipment, computers, notebooks and pens at the end of each day.

One of their biggest concerns was transporting students in vans from the UCTOC to where the underwater robot-testing tank was located on base. So instead of putting the students at risk, a new testing tank was built outside the UCTOC.

“If we tried to socially distance that, we’d spend all day in the van running up and down the hill from the UCTOC,” Desjardins said.

Additionally, the hardware design for the program was modified to use sensors to provide a unique challenge to all the teams, rather than the usual depth challenge that could only be completed in Division Newport’s underwater tank.

“From day one, we said we will shut down the program if there was anything suspect. If the numbers ticked up at the Command, we would shut down,” Desjardin said. “It was a nice way to show that we can do this, that if we put the controls in place, people pay attention to those controls.”

Once the logistics were in place, students began building underwater vehicles and testing them throughout the three-week course.

UTAP students begin with a standard robotics kit, then add eight motors and a Raspberry Pi single-board computer to create the underwater robot, said Educational Coordinator Sean Goggin, who is a contractor with McLaughlin Research Corp. Students then test and adjust their robots multiple times to perfect their designs.

“Here they have to build it in a day, as a team,” Goggin said. “We teach them how to use the tools to build and use a basic vehicle. Then we give them a challenge: drop that vehicle into a testing tank and perform a basic task. They deal with buoyancy, visibility and perform basic functions. While this works just fine in a tiny pool, it might not work in depth or darkness, and we have challenges they have to work up to.”

During the school year, Desjardins and Goggin assist about 4,000 students through several STEM programs. Educational Outreach programs remain on hold for the fall session until area schools figure out whether they will be offering distance or in-person learning.

“Most schools are going back into a hybrid model, with partial in-person and partial online learning,” Desjardins said. “So we are preparing some lessons that we can do online with them. But we still don’t know what that’s going to look like. So we’re doing our best to be prepared to support the schools.”

However, staff is teaming up with colleagues across the Naval Sea Systems Command to ensure those learning opportunities aren’t lost.

“Everyone in the Navy is looking at this: How do we continue to reach out to these kids? So, we’re gathering videos from each site, like discussions about buoyancy, the physics of a catapult, and an engineer’s career path,” Desjardins said. “There is no reason why every warfare center and shipyard should have to recreate videos. We are all one team.”

Instructional videos will be shared with school teachers to offer to students during remote learning.

“We’ll also provide materials to the teacher in advance, and provide a virtual demo” of the project to share in class, she said.

“There are a number of ways we can keep things hands-on, and not necessarily recorded,” Goggin added. “We can reach out to the same teachers and same students in New Bedford if those teachers need a break. And we adjust our programs to fit the standards in Massachusetts or the nation so students are getting what they need from the classroom.”

Reflecting on their summer, Desjardins and Goggin both agree that they made serious progress amid a tricky situation, and really like their new program.

“I actually think we accomplished more,” Desjardins said. “We weren’t driving kids back and forth to the tank. It’s amazing how much time we lost herding them into the van, getting through security, getting to the tank. I actually think we did better. If there were days before when there was an official test going on, we couldn’t use the test tank anyway. So now we are completely self-sufficient.

“I am excited that we still have a way to go forward,” she added. “This could have been the end of Educational Outreach, but it’s not. So I’m happy that people see the value in what we are doing, that we have a team that’s working out this new operating landscape. But we still have a lot to do.”

NUWC Division Newport is a shore command of the U.S. Navy within the Naval Sea Systems Command, which engineers, builds and supports America’s fleet of ships and combat systems. NUWC Newport provides research, development, test and evaluation, engineering and fleet support for submarines, autonomous underwater systems, undersea offensive and defensive weapons systems, and countermeasures associated with undersea warfare.

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.