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Getting their feet wet

Kamehameha Maui students take deep dive into underwater robots

Kamehameha Schools Maui 7th-grader Shavis Cardoza solders a controller for an underwater robot. DUTCH TANAKA-AKANA photos

There’s a new robotics program at Kamehameha Schools Maui that’s going to make a big splash. Literally.

During a technology showcase at the campus Nov. 8, members of the middle school robotics team unveiled robots they built as part of SeaPerch, a program that teaches students how to build underwater robots, also known as remotely operated vehicles (ROVs).

Yes, you read that right: underwater robots.

“Even the kids were a little confused at first,” said Dutch Tanaka-Akana, one of the school’s robotics coaches.

Tanaka-Akana introduced SeaPerch to the middle school robotics team earlier this fall. He says the students were initially apprehensive, but once the intimidation wore off, they were eager to dive into something new. He hopes to see the program reach the elementary and high school levels in the near future.

Through SeaPerch, students assemble a remotely operated vehicle using a kit like the one pictured here. The underwater robotics program equips teachers and students with the resources they need to build an underwater ROV in an in-school or out-of-school setting.

A submersible robot is undeniably cool, but it can also make important contributions beneath the surface. ROVs are used for oceanographic and environmental research, as well as industrial purposes, such as inspecting underwater pipe-lines or checking the structural integrity of offshore platforms.

In addition to sparking an interest in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), underwater robotics also opens students’ eyes to the possibilities of a career in marine biology, naval architecture or ocean engineering.

Through SeaPerch, students assemble underwater ROVs using a kit composed of parts. They can also think outside of the kit and source miscellaneous parts to build their ROVs — everything from leftover PVC pipe to PlayStation controllers. And to further elevate the cool factor, students can customize their robots with lights, cameras and other bells and whistles.

As they construct, test and launch their ROVs, students learn a myriad of skills, including engineering concepts, problem solving, teamwork and technical applications. It is fully hands-on (there are no textbooks or PowerPoint lectures) and the students do all of the robotic work themselves; coaches like Tanaka-Akana guide them to find solutions on their own. Apart from figuring out how to build an underwater robot, students devise ways to waterproof their creations — and keep them from floating to the surface. It requires some trial and error, and in many cases, a trip back to the proverbial drawing board. Tanaka-Akana encourages his students to not only embrace challenges, but to also leverage setbacks. By doing so, they build resilience and become even more determined to get it right, he said.

But securing a watery venue can pose the biggest challenge. With a swimming pool on campus, Kamehameha Schools Maui is well positioned to participate in SeaPerch, but not all schools have access to a pool.

Tanaka-Akana says he would like to see every school on Maui participate, and as more express interest in the program, he will explore the possibility of using county pools to test-drive students’ ROVs.

Tanaka-Akana said the 2019-20 school year will be dedicated to building the infrastructure for the fledgling program.

By the fall of 2020, he said his students will likely be ready to enter their ROVs into local and regional SeaPerch competitions, where they’ll compete in challenges ranging from obstacle courses to underwater rescue missions.

Winners of regional competitions can earn a slot to compete in the international SeaPerch Challenge, which is held every spring.

This is Tanaka-Akana’s second year coaching middle school robotics at Kamehameha Schools Maui and he hopes to see more coaches and mentors join Maui County’s burgeoning youth robotics community.

He said one doesn’t need an engineering degree to become a coach or mentor — just a passion for learning and an eagerness to help kids reach those invaluable “aha” moments.

“It is extremely rewarding,” he added. “In more ways than I ever imagined.”

Kamehameha Schools Maui will host the 2020 Hawaiian Electric Cos. Hawaii State Middle School VEX IQ Championship for the more traditional robots on land at its campus on Feb. 28 and 29, 2020. The event is open to the public.

To learn more about developing robotics programs for Maui County youth, contact Tanaka-Akana at dutanaka@ksbe.edu. For more information about the SeaPerch Program, visit www.seaperch.org.