2018-05-10 / News

Lawn science class hits new depths

Sixth-graders test robots in courtyard pool

Sixth-graders Eloise Collins, from left, Zachary DiBiase, Meredith Coulter, Matthew Cotter, Quinn Kennedy, Caroline Hall and Ella Grace learn control their underwater vehicles Tuesday in the Lawn School courtyard. 
PHOTO BY ANDREA VON HOHENLEITEN Sixth-graders Eloise Collins, from left, Zachary DiBiase, Meredith Coulter, Matthew Cotter, Quinn Kennedy, Caroline Hall and Ella Grace learn control their underwater vehicles Tuesday in the Lawn School courtyard. PHOTO BY ANDREA VON HOHENLEITEN Although Lawn School doesn’t have a competitive swim team, students were competing in the pool Tuesday morning.

Their maritime pursuits, however, were strictly educational.

Three of Charlene Tuttle’s sixth-grade science classes piloted their underwater SeaPerch vehicles in an inflatable pool in the courtyard, which was provided by Meg Myles of the Conanicut Island Sailing Foundation. The students were practicing piloting their crafts to prepare for more intensive work in larger bodies of water.

“They have to troubleshoot,” Tuttle said. “They have to take data and make observations on the results.”

The students have been building their vehicles all year. This project incorporates the engineering aspects of the Next Generation Science Standards taught in the district, specifically the unit on ecosystems. In a few weeks, they will attach cameras to the vehicles to observe the life along the Sheffield Cove shoreline in the intertidal zones.

Next month, the students will begin following the voyage of the E/V Nautilus. The ocean exploration is captained by University of Rhode Island professor Robert Ballard, the renowned underwater archaeologist who discovered the Titanic shipwreck in 1985. Tuttle wants her students’ work in Sheffield Cove to reflect what Ballard’s team is doing off the coasts of California and Hawaii.

“It makes real what’s happening,” she said. “When we did it after school with a small group this year, the excitement for seeing a mussel underwater was amazing. It’s going to really help them appreciate the world around them and the living things right here in our bay.”

Hands-on learning in action

Tuesday marked the inaugural dive for their SeaPerch vehicles. Students learned to drive the robots on the water, testing dives, turns and circumnavigations. The maneuvers can be tricky, they learned, because of limitations from the cords attached to the remote controls. Sheffield Cove will be even trickier.

“They’re not going to have much time to do those things and still actually have time to observe those organisms,” Tuttle said.

The students built the vehicles from kits in the makerspace, a section of the school’s library dedicated to hands-on collaborative learning. The vehicles comprise primarily of PVC piping, which the students slotted into place. They are powered by two motors and a circuit board, and are driven with the tethered control pad. To control their buoyancy, the students have been attaching cut pieces of foam noodles to the piping.

The SeaPerch vehicles were originally introduced in an afterschool program, but Tuttle incorporated them into her annual rotation two years ago.

“It was such a magnificent, rich experience,” she said. “It tied into so many parts of the curriculum that we were already doing.”

The students were assisted in soldering the circuit boats by volunteers from the Naval Underwater Warfare Center and the Newport County Radio Club. Patrick Burke, a board member of the Southeastern New England Defense Industry Alliance in Middletown, also was involved with the construction process. He was there Tuesday to watch the students submerge their vehicles.

Learning the basics

The SeaPerch program, conceived by the Office of Naval Research, is intended to teach children the basics of marine engineering. Burke worked alongside Tuttle to create the initial program, and continued after it made its transition to the classroom.

“The kits were originally designed for high school kids, but these are sixth-graders and they put them together,” Burke said.

Along with Sheffield Cove, the students also will pilot their vehicles at the YMCA in Middletown. One exercise will task students with dropping rings into an underwater bucket using their craft. For another, they will attach a tool to their pipes and collect items from the bottom of the pool, then move them between two underwater platforms. According to Burke, the speed competition is to see which students can successfully move the most objects from one table to another in five minutes.

“It’s a little difficult,” he said, “but it’s supposed to be difficult.”

Burke and Tuttle said the troubleshooting exercises Tuesday has prepared the students for Sheffield Cove and the YMCA visit. Specifically, Burke thought the practice particularly allowed students to understand the importance of buoyancy to keeping vehicles steady. Sixth-grader Joseph Froberg agreed.

“You have to have a correct amount of buoyancy so it can float and it can sink enough,” he said. “If you have too much of the noodle, it will float too much and you can’t go down.”

If you have too little, Froberg added, it just sinks.

During practice, Froberg and partners Michaela Castner and Lexi Moretti cut the noodle until it was properly weighted. Then, they attached zip ties to secure the noodle pieces to their craft. Castner did most of the team’s driving.

“It was fun to maneuver it through the water,” she said. “It could go down, but I could still control it.”

River Andersen and Cordelia Thomas, meanwhile, had a problem when one of their motor blades fell off and sank to the bottom of the pool. Although they weren’t able to maneuver underwater as well as other teams because of the accident, they were able to improvise a solution to continue testing their craft until the piece could be fished out.

“We’re just dealing with it by moving down and moving around,” Thomas said. “We can’t navigate around the pool without it, so we’re just trying to do our best in our area.”

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