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NEWS | Aug. 25, 2022

High school students spend summer learning robotics through NUWC Division Newport educational programs

By NUWC Division Newport Public Affairs

Luke Tarpey, a rising sophomore at New Bedford High School in Massachusetts spent part of his summer back in school working with Naval Undersea Warfare Center (NUWC) Division Newport engineers in the Sea Lab program. The experience gave him new found confidence.

“At the start of the program, I was confused and didn’t know how to connect any of the pieces. I’ve had no previous experience with robotics and I didn’t think I could do anything like this,” Tarpey said. “I became mostly the ‘ideas’ person in the group — thinking of different ways to put it together and ideas on where we should start first. It’s really rewarding to see it all coming together.”

Tarpey and 25 other students, some from Greater New Bedford Regional Vocational Technical High School and Fairhaven and Dartmouth schools, attended the pirate-themed, six-week program aimed at teaching the fundamentals of engineering: mechanical, electrical, logic and problem solving. The students built a robot from scratch, then plugged in coding to program it to operate in different directions and to have the ability to pick up and move different items.

Excitement and interest in careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) has been the goal NUWC Division Newport’s Educational Outreach Program has been striving for in various ways for decades. Sea Lab, just one of two STEM programs conducted this summer, has been in place for more than 10 years, said Candida Desjardins, program director.

“It shows the students a firsthand example that these skills and activities can lead to a professional career,” said Michael DeSousa, an engineer in Division Newport’s Undersea Warfare (USW) Weapons, Vehicles, and Defensive Systems Department and Sea Lab instructor. “The most important part the students learn is that with support and instruction they are capable of meeting challenges that they otherwise thought were far beyond them.”

Sea Lab also gives students the opportunity to experience new areas of academia and spark new interests that some may have not realized they had.

“It’s a great pathway and focus on any student’s future,” Simone Bourgeois, Sea Lab facilitator, said during a program demonstration held on Aug. 3. “Kids think they have an idea of what they want to do, but then they experience a path they wouldn’t have thought trying, and end up liking it. I think that’s the best thing you can teach children today.” 

“It’s a fairly high level introduction to a robotics event. It is more advanced but the students are up for the challenge,” Greater New Bedford Regional Vocational Technical High School teacher Robert Southerland said. “The program has a strict application process, and the students have to take an entrance exam to be accepted. It’s a great program to add to their college applications, and the whole point is to get people excited about this career field.”

Tim Sieben, an engineer in Division Newport USW Combat Systems Department, and Sea Lab instructor, used to participate in Aquidneck Island Robotics, another outreach program, when he was in 11th and 12th grade. It was through that program that he learned he wanted to become an engineer.

“It's because of my experience in that program that I continue to help outreach today so that I can give other students a similar experience that I had,” Sieben said.

Another program, the Undersea Technology Apprentice Program (UTAP) is held each summer in two, three-week sessions in Division Newport’s Undersea Collaboration and Technology Outreach Center (UCTOC). The program offers high school students an opportunity to work with advanced technology while developing real-world applications of science and math lessons learned at school.

In UTAP, students create and program an underwater vehicle that has the ability to pick up weighted objects, identify the name of a ship, and move in the various directions. The 24 students in each session are split up into six teams of four, and each team is required to keep an engineering notebook, compete in the underwater vehicle competition and create a final report by the end of the program.

“The day each team tests their vehicle always gets a lot of attention because it’s a huge part of the engineering process, but it’s also important that the teams update their notebooks and reports throughout the three week-period,” program instructor Dr. John DiCecco of Division Newport’s Platforms and Payload Integration Department, said. “When the competition is over, we all sit as a group together to debrief the process and hear what everyone learned, what challenges they overcame, and what they would’ve done differently. It’s a nice way to wrap up the program.”

UTAP strives to give the students is a “real-world” experience, and more than 24 different schools in Rhode Island and Massachusetts are represented in the program.

“We mix up the students so that they can meet new people and get out of their comfort zone,” Desjardins said.

During underwater robot testing day held on July 20, Desjardins explained that all aspects of the program strives to give students real-world experiences.

“Even the tarp over the tank for example, it’s meant to mimic the dark ocean floor so that it feels ‘real-world’,” she said.

“We want them to establish new relationships and learn how to communicate and work as a team,” Chris Hansen of Division Newport’s Educational Outreach Program said.

“The program has been fun and we’ve learned a lot. It’s interesting to meet new people that you wouldn’t have otherwise,” said Garrett Vieira, a rising junior at Bishop Stang High School in Dartmouth, Massachusetts.

The competition provided a unique opportunity for students to learn valuable lessons as the teams had to work through unanticipated obstacles that arose while their vehicles were in the water.

“Our team was able to pick up a ring, however it was hard for us to drive because one of our downward motors was unexpectedly not working, so it was difficult to keep the vehicle balanced in the water,” said Olivia Soucy, a rising junior at North Kingstown High School in Rhode Island.

After discovering the problem with the motor, the team had to work together and do the best they could to complete the tasks.

“This was a really good group,” DiCecco said about the first session of UTAP. “The kids were very engaged and really wanted to get the most out of their time 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.