ANNAPOLIS — Of all things, seventh-grader Joshua Kovach used his experience playing paintball to build an underwater robot.
A student at Old Mill Middle School South in Millersville, he spent months tweaking his design for an underwater robotics competition at the U.S. Naval Academy aimed at attracting more Maryland students to science and engineering careers.
Kovach hooked his robot up to a small carbon dioxide canister — the same type used to propel paintballs — to inflate a balloon on-board his robot that, in the competition, successfully pushed a submerged bucket to the surface.
His innovative thinking demonstrates how some Maryland students are learning science, technology, engineering and math skills, school subjects commonly referred to as STEM.
In the last few years, STEM has been the focus of state and federal funding, as well as national and regional competitions, like the SeaPerch program, an underwater robotics competition tied to naval engineering.
At the regional SeaPerch competition on Saturday, students from more than 20 public and private schools from Maryland and Virginia competed.
The students designed small robotic rovers built from everyday materials, like PVC pipes, mesh netting, plastic straps and ping pong balls. The rovers were hooked up to gear powered propellers and electronic controls.
Students also learn about the real-life pressures of engineering.
Kovach worked with a team of students to build the rover, and they continued tweaking it right up and until the last minute.
A day before the competition, Kovach, who placed second in a national SeaPerch competition last year, had to dismantle his old rover in order to replace a faulty switch that releases carbon dioxide to inflate the balloon.
“Things can go wrong, and you have to try to tweak things to make it perfect,” he said. “This is something that I can do well, and I think it could be a job, where I get to go to work everyday and enjoy it.”
Since 2007, the Maryland State Department of Education has funded STEM programs, like SeaPerch.
But STEM funding may be in jeopardy, unless state legislators meet to amend a “doomsday budget” that cut tens of millions of dollars for education programs like STEM, said Donna Clem, the state education department’s coordinator of STEM initiatives.
“Certainly school systems are desperate for funding to institute STEM programs. School systems could definitely use more [funding],” she said.
STEM programs can be targeted to students of various ages. Elementary students participate in Lego building exercises, while high schoolers work to build underwater submarines. Funds also support certification for teaching STEM subjects.
In addition to federal and state funding, Clem said community support for STEM programs like SeaPerch — a six year partnership between local schools and the Naval Academy — is critical.
In Saturday’s competition, student-built rovers competed in a hydromechanics lab used by Naval Academy engineers for academic and research purposes.
Volunteers, especially the professional engineers who served as judges and timekeepers, played an important role too, said Angela Moran, a professor of mechanical engineering at the Naval Academy and a coordinator of the SeaPerch program.
“The message that we want to send to kids is that it doesn’t matter who you are. It matters what you feel you’re good at, how you want to succeed and what you want to give back to your country. Engineers change the world for a better place.” Moran said.
More than 70 teams from middle and high schools competed in Saturday’s SeaPerch competition.
The teams demonstrated a variety of maneuvers, including a deep sea search and recovery mission. Students floated submerged drywall buckets, mimicking professional dive teams that use large flotation devices to recover sunken material.
“The goal is to get students engaged in basic naval architecture and engineering. The rovers simulate a real-life project,” said Toby Ratcliffe, an ocean engineer at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Carderock.
Ratcliffe volunteered on Saturday and said many of the rover kits are provided to students through federal programs, like the National Defense Education Program.
The program also trains teachers on how to build and test the rovers.
SeaPerch has thrived at schools like Old Mill Middle School South because of the dedicated time of teachers who spend time after-school working on the project, said principal Carolyn Burton-Page.
Burton-Page attended Saturday’s competition to cheer on Kovach, and a handful of her middle schoolers participating in the final rounds.
Although the team lost in competition, Burton-Page said her students gained valuable problem solving skills.
“When we start in middle school, kids are able and willing to pursue STEM long-term,” she said. “When you talk about critical thinking and troubleshooting, those learned behaviors from projects like this, we expect that to carryover to the classroom too.”