DAHLGREN, Va. –
As a curious young boy growing up in Puerto Rico, Luis N. Valcourt-Colón was always drawn to exploring how different types of technology worked. His interest in computers, robotics and other technological areas continued throughout his educational journey and guided him along his career path. That path led Valcourt-Colón to Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division (NSWCDD) as a computer scientist and software development lead for various projects in the Battle Management Systems (BMS) Branch.
His enthusiasm for computers and technology pointed him to opportunities beyond his role in the branch.
He was introduced to the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) initiative at Dahlgren by the previous program lead. Soon after joining the BMS team, he answered the call to volunteer with the SeaPerch underwater robotics program and participated at a regional competition hosted by NSWCDD and held at Fredericksburg Academy, a Pre-K to grade 12 private school.
With a piqued interest after attending his first competition, Valcourt-Colón devoted more of his time to learning about the STEM programs and the expectations for volunteering. “I didn’t have the opportunity to participate in programs such as these when I was in grade school, and so when I heard about SeaPerch and the STEM community here at Dahlgren, I knew it was something I wanted to be a part of,” said Valcourt-Colón.
The SeaPerch and SeaGlide programs are part of a national and global initiative to generate student interest and incorporate STEM-focused lessons into academics. RoboNation, Inc., an independent, non-profit company, first launched the SeaPerch program in 2009, and it has since grown to include more than 250,000 participating students to date.
Collaborative efforts between private industry and government sector, such as NSWCDD, make it possible by supplying equipment and materials and dedicating personnel to lead training workshops at participating schools and educational institutions.
The NSWCDD team – made up of Valcourt-Colón, fellow volunteer scientists and engineers – reach out to schools and educational institutions in the region each year and establish agreements with school officials and administrators.
Valcourt-Colón and his team lead teacher training sessions and host a SeaPerch Day event for students to learn about the programs and STEM.
The NSWCDD team supplies schools and students with remotely operated vehicle (ROV) kits and provide all necessary equipment and materials at no cost to the school, teacher or student teams. “We support the teachers, volunteers and students by training them on how to use the tools, equipment and materials. We want teachers to implement SeaPerch into their physics and math lessons, into their science lab activities and to interact more with students,” said Valcourt-Colón. “Our mission is to get students excited about working with this technology and to have these teams participate at a highly competitive level and enjoy themselves doing it.”
SeaPerch gives students an opportunity and the experience to design, build and operate a small unmanned ROV, including constructing a remote control that is tethered to it.
Once a student team designs and builds an ROV using the provided kits, test evaluations begin to gauge the vehicle’s navigational capabilities in an underwater obstacle course.
During competition, the student teams conduct timed trials as they navigate the course, record and evaluate the data and orally present their analytical reports to a panel of judges.
“The procedures that the students have to follow are not unlike my own when I’m working on a project,” said Valcourt-Colón. “They learn how to design, construct, operate and test ROVs and have to look at the data they collect during the test runs. Once they’ve completed the challenge course, they must be able to tell the final judges what they have learned and found in their data. It’s all very important work and a great learning experience that will help develop engineering skillsets.”
Since becoming the program lead for the SeaPerch and SeaGlide STEM programs, Valcourt-Colón and his team have interacted with more than 350 students and visited more than 40 elementary, middle and high schools in the surrounding central and northern areas of Virginia and in Prince George’s County in southern Maryland. Additionally, the program works with schools within the Villalba, Ponce and Caguas regions in Puerto Rico through an Education Partnership Agreement established by Valcourt-Colón.
NSWCDD hosts a regional competition each year in March and invites teams from multiple schools that NSWCDD supports. The finalists of this competition are invited to compete in an international competition held every year in May. In 2020, Valcourt-Colón saw four teams from Virginia and four teams from Puerto Rico advance to the international competition.
Looking ahead, Valcourt-Colón plans to focus more the SeaPerch program at an elementary level by increasing exposure and incorporating the SeaGlide program – an autonomous unmanned ROV similar to SeaPerch that utilizes software programming capabilities for self-navigation – into high school curricula.
Valcourt-Colón is a recipient of the Distinguished Community Service Award for his volunteer service with the SeaPerch and SeaGlide programs and with the STEM community at Dahlgren. His citation reads in part, “With innovative ideas, he grew a small outreach program into one of the most effective Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics programs at NSWCDD. His drive and enthusiasm continue to be critical in reaching students and developing the next generation of STEM leaders.”