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SERMC Sends Reps to Philly for SeaPerch Event

By Dan Smithyman | SERMC | May 18, 2015

MAYPORT Florida — PHILADELPHIA (NNS) -- The Southeast Regional Maintenance Center (SERMC) sent three of its personnel to the 10th annual Greater Philadelphia SeaPerch Challenge at Drexel University April 24-25 on an exploratory mission.

The mission was to learn how to establish a viable SeaPerch program in the Jacksonville area.

SERMC Commanding Officer, Capt. Dave Gombas, sent Crystal Taylor, Chuck Hayes and Lt. Margaret Dori north to observe middle and high school students competing in this challenge. SeaPerch is a program that engages students in hands-on robotics activities designed to trigger an interest in science, technology engineering and math (STEM).

The competition is an innovative underwater robotics program that teaches students to design and build a remotely operated vehicle (ROV). According to the SeaPerch website (www.seaperch.org), students will learn engineering concepts, problem solving, teamwork, and technical applications. Building a SeaPerch ROV teaches basic skills in ship and submarine design and encourages students to explore naval architecture, and marine and ocean engineering principles. It also teaches basic science and engineering concepts, tool safety and technical procedures.

"This was especially fun for me because I'm from Chester, just outside of Philly," said Taylor. "My old high school had a team competing, so to see my alma mater doing well in this kind of event was a lot of fun."

"What's amazing is the amount of collaboration between teams, and the different perspectives and designs each team brings to the competition," Gombas said.

Ultimately, the goal is to expose students to all the exciting careers that are possible in naval architecture and naval, ocean, and marine engineering.

"The most rewarding aspect of the trip for me was the enthusiasm shown by the participants and the organizers of the event," Hayes said. "I have rarely seen a program that was better organized for young adults in the middle and high school age ranges that developed such excitement that wasn't sports related."

"To see these students with their mentors and teachers in a friendly competition is just inspiring," Gombas said. "The students build ROVs to compete in underwater obstacle courses, sometimes picking up objects from the bottom of the pool. No two ROVs are alike, and the competition changes from year to year too."

He said one year students would be poolside operating their ROVs; the next year, they guided their ROVs by remote camera view. Dori said this year's ROVs had to find and mark underwater "mines" and deploy a small balloon to mark their location. Other obstacle course challenges were acoustic in nature.

Gombas first participated in the SeaPerch program in 2011 while in command of Naval Surface Warfare Center, Naval Ship Systems Engineering Station in Philadelphia where he became captivated by the nature of the competition and the intrinsic benefits.

The program has grown from a one-day event to two days in areas like Philadelphia because of the popularity and spread of the SeaPerch program. Gombas wants Jacksonville to be one of those SeaPerch hubs too, and he wants the Navy - SERMC in particular - to lead the charge in establishing and running the program with some local partners. The Office of Naval Research has sponsored the program in order to promote early education in engineering and science.

The SeaPerch website indicates "the U.S. has fallen from third to 17th in the world in the number of college graduates in engineering programs. In the U.S., only five percent of science degrees are awarded in engineering, as compared with 50 percent in China. It is estimated that 400,000 engineers will be needed in the near future. If it is not addressed, the expected shortage of skilled workers could decrease the nation's global competitiveness and result in a lack of expertise in mission-critical areas."

The next step for the SERMC team will be to travel to Dartmouth, Massachusetts, at the end of May for the National SeaPerch Challenge.

"Our goal there will be to observe and learn the different ways of setting up the various stations and underwater ROV challenge runs in order to translate those into our own competitions here," said Hayes. "In my opinion, whenever there is a vision that is going to make the future better, that is a vision that I can support and hopefully advance in some small way. So, is the goal of developing a local program important? Not only is it important, it is imperative."