MINOOKA – Students from Minooka Community High School heading to the pool this weekend aren’t going to swim.
Instead, they will use their self-built underwater robot to complete tasks, such as remove debris from a hole in a simulated underwater wreck, conduct a sonar scan of the wreck, recover a sensor and deploy a new sensor.
The 11 students are members of the fledgling ROV, or Remote-Operated Underwater Vehicle Club. And they are taking part in their first contest Saturday at the University of Illinois at Chicago Natatorium pool in the Shedd Aquarium Midwest Regional MATE Underwater Robotics Competition.
“They’re doing great,” said Kim Villani, a biology and environmental sciences teacher and the team’s sponsor. “They are eagerly working overtime to get this ready for Saturday. We just began in February. We are a pilot club right now. We’re kind of behind a lot of teams, but the students are very excited.”
Villani said she and fellow science teacher Alexa Tancil learned of the high school underwater robotics program through their association with Shedd Aquarium. Villani has done professional development with the Chicago aquarium and said she was thrilled to help bring the program to her campus.
There are 11 freshmen, sophomores and juniors in the club, and they meet twice a week in her classroom. They’ve been meeting every day this week to prepare for their first competition. For practice, they set up an inflatable pool behind the school.
To make their competition underwater robot, students used PVC pipes and other basic materials. The goal of the contest this year is to complete several underwater missions evaluating simulated shipwrecks.
The Minooka team was accepted to a three-year partnership program with the Shedd Aquarium and Motorola that began this year. As participants, they received such equipment as wrenches, wire cutters, PVC piping, motors, a battery pack, a drill and a hardware store gift card for extras. They will receive more equipment next year through the program.
Villani said the students bring a variety of talents to the team. Freshman Jack Kraft, the project’s lead engineer and designer, said the team’s robot is coming along. He joined the team in February because of his love of science.
“We don’t have many clubs focused on science,” Kraft said.
He’s always loved science, he said, especially theoretical physics and astronomy, and studies science outside of class. To help his team, he researched robot designs and talked to his chemical engineer father for additional information. There are a lot of challenges in designing an underwater robot, he said, especially their first year.
“Frankly, we’re high school students,” Kraft said. “We have good ideas, but we’re kids. I like problem-solving. When something goes awry and we have to figure out how to fix it, I enjoy working through those challenges.”
Freshman Liam Dudson, the team’s CFO, brings some robot-building skills to the table. He also is in the school’s Technology Students’ Association Club.
“I’ve always been interested in engineering and robotics,” he said. “It’s like a giant game. It’s like when you use Legos. There are no instructions on how to put it together. It’s all learning on the job.”
Dudson said the team attended a practice competition at UIC earlier in the year. They weren’t able to put a robot in the water, but they learned valuable wiring and remote piloting skills.
The main design for this weekend’s competition was ready by Thursday, but Dudson said team members were still working on attaching the motors to the tether, shrink-wrapping it, making the poster, and working on the safety guidelines and biographies of members.
“We will try to do the best of our abilities,” he said of the competition.
“Everybody’s got skills they can bring to this team,” Villani said. “Some have the ability to draw. Some of them write well. Some of them know how to do the wiring. One student wants to be a teacher and a comedienne, and he said he could see the great opportunities with this project.”