Exciting competition supports STEM education
It was a race against time and each other as nearly 50 pre-engineering students from three Providence high schools attempted to rescue passengers from a burning boat, capture a drug runner and clean up an oil spill, all within a few seconds. Adding to the tension is the fact that they were being closely watched by their teachers, competitors, several engineers from the U.S. Coast Guard Academy and the local Civil Engineering Unit (CEU) in Warwick, including the CEU commanding officer.
As they maneuvered their remote-controlled boats through an obstacle course and other “missions” recreated in a 10’x10’ foot pool in the Providence Career and Technical Academy (PCTA) Field House, students cheered as they successfully performed their missions and groaned as they closely missed others.
For the second consecutive year, PCTA’s pre-engineering students had a unique opportunity to develop STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) skills in an aquatic robotics design and build competition sponsored by the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. The competition has doubled in size in just one year and is expected to continue to grow to include other schools in future years. This year, PCTA was joined by teams from Mt. Pleasant and Hope High Schools for a total of eight teams.
The Academy’s Robotics on the Water (AROW) event is designed to provide a contextual learning opportunity for pre-engineering students and a professional mentoring experience for the Coast Guard Academy cadets and its civil engineering unit in Warwick, RI. The competition also promotes awareness of Coast Guard missions, the marine trades and future STEM-oriented service opportunities in the Coast Guard.
For more than five hours before the competition, students worked in teams at tables set up in the Field House to build remote-controlled robotic boats that were to perform various simulated Coast Guard missions such as search and rescue, counter narcotics, and oil spill response. Each team was accompanied by an engineering cadet mentor and a senior engineering mentor from the Warwick office. Tension was evident as students worked to construct their craft and test it, only to realize that important components didn’t work.
Then, it was back to the table to figure out what went wrong and why and figure out how to fix the problem before retesting their craft. Many students, who were intently focused on preparing for the competition, chose to eat their lunches while working.
According to Wendy Valente, who teaches algebra and engineering at Mt. Pleasant’s engineering academy, worked to prepare the school’s teams and said the students were “really excited” for the competition. Teachers were given curriculum materials to help them prepare their students. “This is very hands-on and allows students to apply what they are learning in class. It’s great exposure and shows how math is applied in the real world.”
With names like The Blue Wave (Hope), Destroyer and Team Savage, these teams were highly engaged and serious about winning.
“They are learning and having fun at the same time,” said Andres Castro, an oceanography and forensics teacher at Hope.
PCTA Principal Wobberson Torchon called the competition “phenomenal. Students can see the application of theoretical concepts. They have the ability to see theory in action, test hypotheses, restart and expect different results. When they finish, they need to see how the boat is going to perform and how do they correct and restart? This is about problem-solving and thinking critically.”
Hope student Julio Lopez said building the craft “was challenging, but fun. It requires basic engineering skills that I already know.”
Mt. Pleasant freshman Miguel Webber said the pressure was to get the craft completed in time to test it and make improvements. “We knew everything was not going to be perfect so we tested it and reconfigured. We won’t know for sure until we actually see the boat in action.”
A 10’ x 10’ pool was constructed at the PCTA Field House for the competition. Points are accumulated throughout the day until the highest-scoring team prevails. Teams competed in simulated Coast Guard missions such as collecting an oil spill; energizing a lighthouse; stop, catch and jail a drug runner; land a helicopter on their vessel and put it in the water; and rescue survivors of a boating accident and deliver them to a hospital.
Cadet Second Class Jessica Wright has worked with high school students in similar competitions in El Paso and in Baltimore and remarked that the Providence students were “very well prepared.”
Prior to the competition, Commander Michael Roschel of the Coast Guard’s First District and Lt. Commander Brian Maggi presented Luke Driver, director of career and technical education for Providence Schools, with a plaque of appreciation to PCTA for its commitment to enhancing educational opportunities for students through their participation in the Coast Guard’s educational programs. Based on all of its educational outreach efforts, including their work with the AROW competition last year, Civil Engineering Unit Providence was awarded the Partnership in Education (PIE) Sustained Excellence Unit of the Year by the national PIE program.
“The Coast Guard’s mobile AROW is an engineering-oriented off-campus program that exposes high school students and their teachers to the Coast Guard Academy and the opportunities available within the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines. This immersive one-day program is designed to demonstrate that engineering can be thrilling and to inspire participants to consider a STEM career,” said Lt. Lars Tormey of the Coast Guard’s civil engineering unit in Warwick.
This is the not the first partnership between the Coast Guard Academy and its local civil engineering unit. Coast Guard engineers have provided technical mentoring to PCTA students throughout the year including taking a field trip to a Coast Guard Building New Construction Site at Naval Base Newport and a tour of a Coast Guard buoy tender. The civil engineering unit is also planning to host Mt. Pleasant High School students for its annual popsicle stick bridge building competition on April 27.