Underwater robotics competition helps students build skills for future


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2013_08_underwater_robotics_fThe Gadget Guy reviews the latest technology for the government and explores related trends and hot topics.

The challenges in educating young people include not only engaging and keeping their interest but also giving them skills and knowledge applicable to the real world. One way to achieve both goals is to have contests such as robotic competitions. In these, a team has to build a robot to overcome physical obstacles and accomplish concrete goals. And the spirit of competition tends to make things even more exciting.

Earlier this summer, the Marine Advanced Technology Education Center hosted its 12th annual student underwater robotics competition Federal Way, Washington. The MATE Center has been funded as a National Science Foundation Advanced Technological Education Center of Excellence since 1997.

This year’s challenge was to design and build a remotely operated underwater vehicle. These ROVs would need to accomplish tasks and take environmental readings. The tasks put to the test not only the teams’ robotics skills but also honed their problem-solving and logical abilities.

“This was a very challenging mission,” said Jill Zande, associate director and competition coordinator at the MATE Center. “And we found that a number of the students did really well.”

To give the mission even more of a real-world flavor, the students were encouraged to think like entrepreneurs and run their teams as much like a start-up business as possible. This approach taught them teamwork and creative thinking skills that might not be learned in a strict laboratory environment, and that have proven to be valued by employers.

“We’ve had students snapped up by industry into $60,000 jobs before they’ve finished their associate degree,” said Deidre Sullivan, director and principal investigator for the MATE Center. “When the Deepwater Horizon oil spill happened three years ago, some of people who were operating the ROVs looking at the damage were graduates of the MATE curriculum.”

Competitions such as this are invaluable in shaping students’ skills today, and, as a consequence, the technological advantage both the private and public sectors can have in the future. For a list of award winners of this year’s competition, check out the NSF website.

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