Discovering The Beauty Of Innovation

September 1, 2010

Ed Moriarty (in yellow), an MIT Engineering professor, led a discussion that led to problem-solving solutions. L. to R.: Ben McLuckie, Tom Moriarty, Cooper Stec, Heather Parsons, Robert Parsons, Ed, Dave Smalley.

Art, nature, and science were recurring themes in the projects participants undertook at a Super SeaPerch workshop near Juneau, AK, June 14-16, 2010. Dan Comeau, who will be in 12th grade in the fall at O'Bryant School in Boston, was working on an LED board with different colored lights that he was programming to go on and off: red, blue, yellow, green. He wanted to program the red and blue lights to make a magenta burst; blue and yellow to make aqua. His point of reference was the lighting in theatrical productions, but he wanted to mount his matrix on the SeaPerch for no practical reason, just for its beauty, and, he joked, "to blind fish."

Jordan McLuckie, a seventh-grader in Hoonah, AK, sketched a SeaPerch frame that was a slim square with what she described as "PVC-type arms" springing from all four sides. Motors controlled by two joysticks would be housed on the ends of these arms. The shape, less boxy than a standard SeaPerch, would be able to go into narrow crevices.

Bob Vieth, STEM Education Specialist with the Juneau Economic Development Council, created the three-day workshop and invited teachers from all over Alaska to fill the few available slotsall expenses paidon a first-come, first-served basis. Rules were that each teacher would have basic experience with construction and use of a SeaPerch and would bring a student to the Ted Stevens Marine Research Institute, a NOAA facility at Auke Bay, AK.

He partnered with an MIT engineer, Ed Moriarty, who brought his son Tom, a first-year MIT student. Robert Parsons of the University of Alaska, who brought his daughter, Heather, added to the engineering brain trust. One other expert was Candice Desjardins of the Naval Undersea Warfare Center in Newport, RI. The workshop had support from NOAA and the National Defense Education Program.

Vieth creates a variety of workshops to develop the next generation of workers for local companies and the Department of Defense facilities in the Juneau area, but this was his first Super SeaPerch confab. "I'm thrilled with the outcome," he says. "When I first saw the range of ages [the youngest was nine], I had some misgivings that this was going to work, but ... there was a great exchange of ideas and an intellectual vibrancy in the air that I don't think I've felt before."

The Cardinal needed a new dorsal fin, and other repairs.Ideas To Copy

Some of the ideas developed may in time become standard on SeaPerches. Certainly they'll be replicated by others who want to take their 'Perches into deeper water or to make the controls more sensitive.

A $4.00 mag switch that teacher Tennie Bentz and her student Karissa Land installed to shut off the motors when the SeaPerch reaches a certain depth is one such innovation. Another is a modification to a Logitech joystick that Heather Parsons figured out. "It works beyond anyone's expectations," says Vieth. "It was obviously two orders of magnitude above what we currently use as a controller."

The students, he says, learned to think outside the box, to "look for the best answer, not the correct answer." The teachers learned that inquiry-based science and engineering is thrilling and leads to unexpected learning opportunities for the teachers as well as the students.

Clearly pride and joy and enthusiasm came even from solutions that were not huge leaps forward. Lots of brainstorming went into repairs, for example. Jordan McLuckie teamed up with two other students, Sheridan Cook of Juneau and Cooper Stec of Talkeetna, AK, to work on The Cardinal, which needed its freshwater motors converted so they'd work in saltwater (by coating them with wax) and to repair the dorsal fin (using aluminum). When the repair team spoke to this writer by Skype, the ROV had tested out in a tank but had yet to be tested in the big water, five miles away. Sad to say, it sank. But that was because an electric cable came unplugged. The dorsal fin itself had a successful voyage. And The Cardinal was later retrieved by Tom Moriarty. Good thing, because The Cardinal is already legendary as a strange piece of art that is way more than functional (it won a Quidditch tournament in Boston).

Ed Moriarty, the MIT engineer, points to the blend of engineering, art, and science as something important besides technology that can come out of research. "There's an emotion that you touch when you're doing something like that," he says. Conceptualizing something brand-new that will "touch human beings" makes it really fun.

And that's what this particular research workshop did in spades. Sure, there were some well-defined problems that the group wanted to tackle, but in the end it was all about expanding knowledge. Says Desjardins: "One of the great things about SeaPerch is that it's a community... The intention was never to have SeaPerch be a paint-by-numbers kind of thing. The whole purpose is to teach engineering. You're going to build, you're going to test, and you're going to go back and build again."

SeaPerch, which is sponsored and funded by the Office of Naval Research (ONR), is managed by SNAME, the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers. SeaPerch is also supported with funds from the National Defense Education Program (NDEP).

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