Sea Cadets Will Command Underwater Robots

Dozens of leaders trained for SeaPerch 

"If you had asked us 3 months ago what SeaPerch means, we wouldn't have known how to answer that question," said Henry J. Nyland, CAPT, US Navy (Ret.), and Deputy Director of the U.S. Naval Sea Cadet Corps Headquarters in Arlington, Virginia.

Yet, on a cold, clear morning in November 2011, 73 Sea Cadet Command Officers received SeaPerch training at the Naval Undersea Warfare Center (NUWC) Newport Division in Rhode Island. This was the second in a series of SeaPerch Sea Cadet Command Officer training sessions with a goal of ultimately training 10,000 Sea Cadets to build their own underwater robot.


The training was facilitated by the SeaPerch Program Technical Director, Chris Hansen. "SeaPerch is our way of conning kids into liking engineering," said Chris. "SeaPerch isn't a vehicle, it's not a person; it's the Program and it's the community. It's that community and that group of people and all the different individual programs that make SeaPerch a success. And that's what we are working on growing. We are not sending 50 gazillion kits out to 100 gazillion kids. It's the community of people that do it, and the community of the kids that do it, that make the program successful." He went on to say, "We are not looking for the kid born with the pocket protector. We've already got them. We are looking for the kid who maybe says 'I want to be a fashion designer. But, robots are cool.'"

The SeaPerch Program is the Office of Naval Research's (ONR) signature STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) program for middle and high school students. It originated in a book written by Harry Bohm and Vickie Jensen entitled "How to Build an Underwater Robot." A curriculum was subsequently designed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and originally funded by the MIT Sea Grant of 2003, and then Susan Nelson, Executive Director of SeaPerch, developed the program as it stands today, managed by the AUVSI Foundation. This project teaches underwater robotics, with a marine engineering theme, to middle and high school students through the hands-on activity of building their own robots, teaching basic skills in ship and submarine design and encourages students to explore naval architecture, marine and ocean engineering concepts independently. The curriculum also includes discussion of potential careers in the STEM field, as well as other related fields of study.

The real success behind the SeaPerch Program is its mentors. In addition to ONR, SeaPerch is managed by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) Foundation, and is also supported by the National Defense Education Program (NDEP), Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA), the Naval Engineering Education Center (NEEC), the National Guard, Micron, Raytheon, Maritime Reporter and Marine News magazines, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, the American Society of Naval Engineers (ASNE), the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers (SNAME), the Center for Innovation in Ship Design (CISD), BAE Systems, Northern Virginia Community College, to name a few. Over 20,000 students built SeaPerches in 2011. The participation of the Sea Cadets ensures that we will surpass that number in 2012. The SeaPerch program is making a definite and positive difference in the math and science scores of American youth, as more of them become acquainted with engineering concepts.

"Years ago there was the race to the moon, the cold war, and we were graduating the scientists and engineers. And now, the number of graduates is going way down. Now, hopefully, this will spark an interest again in math and science," said Lloyd Burkett, Commanding Officer of the Sea Cadets, George Washington Division, New Rochelle, NY.

"What we love about it, beyond the physical numbers is that we are using these wonderful mentors, some of these folks who were in the Navy and who are very committed to this project, working with Sea Cadets. What better mentors to take the SeaPerch program forward than these Officers, because they are going to be the best ambassadors I could imagine for the SeaPerch Program," said Susan Nelson.

Susan Nelson is largely responsible for taking the SeaPerch Program to the national level. Like so many visionaries, she is also hesitant when it comes to taking credit for it. I asked her how she came up with the concept.

"Well, I just saw this vehicle, and envisioned what it could be. MIT had done a wonderful job designing a teacher training program. And they took the SeaPerch concept from the book by Vickie Jensen and Harry Boehm [Build Your Own Underwater Robot], and turned it into a teacher training program. They provided the education of the teachers and a list of parts for the teachers to then go out and take to their classrooms. I saw a couple of teachers speak at a meeting I attended. They were just so passionate about SeaPerch and for some reason, I guess as a marketing person, and with the full support of ONR, I just was able to take it to the next step."

Susan explained that she was ardent after hearing the teachers speak about SeaPerch being a great equalizer. They had students who weren't the most popular kids, but, when they got the pliers and soldering irons in their hands, they were stars of the show. "And I sat there at that meeting when I heard those teachers speak and I had tears in my eyes. Because, something just resonated with me and I thought, I want more kids to be able to do that. How can we do that?"

After the meeting, Susan approached Kelly Cooper, the Program Officer at ONR responsible for funding the SeaPerch Program. Susan introduced herself and told Kelly that she would like to build this idea and curriculum into a program that she believed would go national in five years. Upon Kelly's approval, Susan created a small manufacturing operation, complete with inventory, staffed by her and other committed volunteers, and assembled all the materials needed into kits for distribution. Today the assembly of kits is outsourced to a contractor due to the rapid expansion of the program.

"I didn't have to create the wheel. The concept already existed and I give all the credit in the world to MIT for developing the curriculum and to, of course, Vickie and Harry for creating the vehicle."

A New Partnership

The idea of training 10,000 Sea Cadets in how to build an underwater robot came about sometime during the summer of 2011. Randy Hollstein, National Chairman, US Naval Sea Cadet Corps Headquarters, Arlington, Virginia, realized that the Sea Cadets needed to tap into ONR's STEM programs. This resulted in a visit from ONR's Dr. Michael Kassner, Director, Office of Research (Discovery & Invention) and Carolyn Van Damme. It was during that visit that the subject of SeaPerch came up, as well as other ONR STEM opportunities for youth.

"One of the most critical things was making sure that whatever they do, they also endeared the youth towards the Navy. These kids are already wearing Navy uniforms and they are already in them for practical purposes. We know their grandpas, aunts and uncles are already waving the flag. So we felt as though we'd be a perfect fit," said CAPT Nyland.  "After a couple of phones calls, I found out that Susan Nelson was in charge of the SeaPerch Program as Executive Director. So we started working with Susan."

"We are honored to have the opportunity to partner with the Navy League and the Sea Cadets," said Susan Nelson.  "We're on the verge of signing a national partnership agreement with the Navy League and we will eventually train 10,000 Sea Cadets to build SeaPerches. And beyond the physical numbers, what better mentors to take the SeaPerch program forward than these wonderful mentors, some who were in the Navy, and who are all very committed to this project."

Sea Cadets

Since 1958, it has been the mission of the Naval Sea Cadet Corps (NSCC) "...through organization and cooperation with the Department of the Navy, to encourage and aid American youth to develop, train them in seagoing skills, and to teach them patriotism, courage, self-reliance and kindred virtues." The U.S. Naval Sea Cadet Corps (NSCC) and the Navy League Cadet Corps (NLCC) are youth programs for American males and females, ages 10 through 18.

The Navy League of the United States (NLUS), also called the Navy League, is a national association with nearly 50,000 members and 250 councils around the world, who advocate for a strong, credible United States Navy, United States Marine Corps, United States Coast Guard and U.S. Merchant Marine. It was founded in 1902 at the encouragement of President Theodore Roosevelt. Its on-going mission is to "enhance the morale of active duty personnel and their families; to inform Congress and the American public on the importance of strong sea services; and to support youth through programs such as the Naval Sea Cadet Corps, Junior ROTC and Young Marines that expose young people to the values of our sea services."

All prospective Sea Cadets must be unmarried, free of felony convictions, enrolled in school and maintain at least a C average. They must also have parental consent, possess good moral character, be interested in the program and prepared to attend drills regularly. Cadets meet or "drill" at their local unit weekly or monthly throughout the year. A unit is structured along military lines and is headed by a Commanding Officer. Units may drill on military bases, at reserve centers, local schools, or community centers. They are taught team work, camaraderie and an understanding of the military command structure among cadets. Cadets are instructed by both Sea Cadet Officers and senior Sea Cadets through classroom and applied instruction in subjects such as basic seamanship, military drill, and leadership.

Applicants must successfully pass a basic physical examination, very similar to that required of a regular Navy enlistee. Newly enrolled Sea Cadets are required to attend 10-14 days of summer recruit training at Navy and Coast Guard "boot camps" throughout the country. After completing recruit training and other required courses of instruction, many Sea Cadets participate in two-week advanced training aboard Navy and Coast Guard vessels ranging from small patrol craft to large nuclear powered aircraft carriers for a day cruise. Sea Cadets do not participate on extended tours.

Sea Cadets study a broad range of subjects. Some are designed to help them to become responsible adults; others teach them the importance of strong maritime forces. They also study naval history, customs and traditions, seamanship, navigation and similar subjects that will help their chances for promotion should they decide to join one of the sea services.

Sea Cadets are authorized by the Secretary of the Navy to wear Navy enlisted uniforms appropriately marked with NSCC/NLCC insignia.

Promotion within the Sea Cadets is based upon merit. Promising young men and women, upon fulfilling certain successive qualifications and requirements, are given command positions and develop leadership skills.

"We have a little over 25 Cadets in our Division," says Diane Ellswick, Administrative Officer for the Navy Construction Battalion Center (NCBC) Division of Sea Cadets, at Quonset Point, RI. "We have 10 year olds up to 17. It actually starts at 10; you can have a waiver for 10 year old's. From 10 - 13 are League Cadets and when they get older, 13 and up, they are eligible to become a Sea Cadet. Trainings get more intense as you get older and more responsible."

Diane went on to say, "One of the great parts of the Sea Cadet Program is that we show them and help train them to be an adult in society. We expose them to many different types of jobs and show them bits and pieces of what is out there. There are different trainings that they can attend. We have speakers from various different job fields to come in and speak to the Cadets and give them a taste of what is out there. This opens their eyes and prepares them to be a little more knowledgeable before going to college, and what is out there for them to have as careers in life."

Sea Cadets are under no obligation to go into the military. However, for those who do decide to enlist in the Navy or Coast Guard, prior Sea Cadet training may permit entry at an advanced pay grade. I asked Stephen K. Bunting, 1SG, USA (Ret.), Assistant Training Director, US Naval Sea Cadet Corps Headquarters, Arlington, VA how many Sea Cadets actually join the military.

"We have statistics regarding those Sea Cadets who go on to the Naval Academy and that runs about 12% of the brigade that are former Sea Cadets. Percentages or numbers of those just joining the Navy, usually run around 2,000 a year. In my position, all I see is names. And in my position at work, I process orders for training. I know that I cut orders for about 5,500 a summer. So in that aspect, I don't see the faces but I know their names. And as they progress within the program, I see their names again; repeated summers or maybe for when they come up for advancing to the senior rate, or PO1 and CPO, I see their names again. I facilitate the Cadet of the Year Boards as well as the Officer or Instructor of the Year Boards. So I get to see names again. And I see pictures because part of their packet is a picture, so I say, OK, that's who that is."

"This is one of the greatest secrets," said Lloyd Burkett.  "I was a Cadet many years ago. It wasn't the Sea Cadets but it was a nautical program. I tell parents about the Sea Cadet Program opportunities, not only with the Navy but the maritime industry. If one chooses the military, our Cadets can go directly in as an E3 if they can fulfill all the requirements - basic military requirements. They do the boot camp with us and then they do the seaman. It's the same courses that the enlisted service individuals take. So that gives them, from high school, an E3 standing. Now, they have another choice if they choose college. We've had Cadets go to the Naval Academy. Actually, one of my Cadets was offered West Point as well as the Naval Academy in Annapolis, which I found interesting. They gave him an early admission, so he's being interviewed by West Point as well as Annapolis. He's going to make his decision and we hope he will choose the Naval Academy."

Sea Cadet International Exchange Program

The Sea Cadet Program is not unique to the United States. Many maritime countries have similar programs for their youth. The United States has been conducting Sea Cadet exchanges with Canada since the early 1970s. The U.S. customarily conducts exchanges with Russia, Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, Sweden, India, The Netherlands, United Kingdom and Australia. The U.S. also invites visiting cadets from many nations for an exchange here. Exchange Cadets are selected on a competitive merit basis. Each Cadet must have an outstanding record as well as a good reputation within his or her home community.

"My daughter, who is now 26, had been in the program since she was 11. She is currently the CO of the Lexington, KY unit. And I got in because they were going to England and I had a passport. And I said, well if you need a chaperone, I'll be glad to go," says Sue Lounsberry, Sea Cadet Commanding Officer in Mayport, FL.  "The next thing I knew, I was on my way to London with 7 people and a uniform! And I had no idea what I was doing. And here I am, 12 years later the CO of a unit."

In 2010, the US NSCC hosted the International Sea Cadet Association's annual conference in Arlington, VA. Approximately 14 member nation representatives participated. Their common goal is the continued improvement of the exchange program which annually places Cadets in other member nations for two weeks of summer training. In addition, the NSCC also hosted visiting exchange students in Newport, RI for sponsored training in the summer of 2010.

Naval Sea Cadet Corps Commanding Officers

"Everyone here is a volunteer. Everyone gives up their time, vacation time and there's a lot of that. Some of us work on the Sea Cadet stuff late at night. I am an optimist. We have a good future. We are building the future leaders of tomorrow with our group and keeping the country in good hands," said David Kerwood, President, U.S. Naval Sea Cadets of Rhode Island.

"I met the Navy League of Daytona Beach several years ago. And actually my son met them and he just hit it off with the older gents from the Navy League. And the next weekend, we were down at the Coast Guard Station in New Smyrna Beach/Daytona Beach and he just signed up. Month later, he had me in it," laughs Kathy D'Orlando of Florida, who has been with the Sea Cadets for 2-1/2 years.

After retiring from the U.S. Army, Stephen Bunting's wife told him that the Sea Cadets were looking for a retired senior chief or senior enlisted person to do training and asked if he would be interested. "It will be 14 years in December," said Stephen.

"Parents and students do not realize that in the commercial maritime field, there are jobs available right out of high school. One of the professors who were doing the maritime technology curriculum, a 2-year college curriculum in New York City, says he tries to encourage these students to stay in for the 2-year degree because companies want to offer them a job right from high school making over $40K to start. Now, if they do a 2-year program and get a Coast Guard license, they could start at $75K. And also, in New York, we have the State University of New York, the Maritime College, they have a ROTC program, also military option, but they also have the commercial option where they can get their certification and become a 3rd mate on an unlimited tonnage ship. And I've heard that some of the students start at over $100K a year," commented Lloyd Burkett.

Mary Reed of Michigan said, "I have MS. I've still got a brain and it still running 100 miles an hour. I asked my daughter, she's 14, would you be interested? Sea Cadets is the first intro that she went to and she fell in love, right then and there. She has jumped on it and it's hers. Well, I started sewing when they needed somebody who could sew patches. I'm a quilter and a sewer and it is something that I can do on my own time. They asked me if I wanted to go to the OPD (Officer Professional Development ) courses and I said, 'Oh sure, I'll go.' I just took the OPD courses, last weekend at Camp Grayling in Michigan. Then our CO had sent out an email about this, and said it's a short time frame, short turnaround. He said, if you can do it, I'd love somebody to go. I called my husband at work and he's like 'apply!' And I called my mom, because my mom was across the road and so she'd take care of the kids and the dog. She said, 'apply! Do it now!' And I did and crossed my fingers and somehow I made it."

"We work with kids in the Great Lakes and we've evolved over 35 years. Diving is a big part of the program, taking scientist out and doing real research projects. We bring in 60-70 kids per year. We used to do this just with our group. The Sea Cadets Program there is about 30 kids and they have to take care of the ship, maintain it. We're bringing kids in from around the country - having an impact. We're trying to expand the program where we keep it going all summer. And like everything else, we're working on donations and whatever we can get to make it work. But the kids come in and they can learn to dive. We actually work with NOAA [National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration]. They teach them how to measure ship wrecks under water; how to do the archaeological stuff. So I think this [SeaPerch] is a great tool. If I can take a youngster and build up his confidence, give him something that he likes. He's going to do well. He's got to find his niche. And then you can watch him roll. I started actually 38 years ago in 1972 and then in '77 we got our first ship, so its 35 years in sea training. But I talk to kids who have graduated. The son of this fellow right here (pointing), he's one of my instructors. Four years ago his son graduated, went to work for Jean Michel Cousteau, traveled all over the world," said CAPT Luke Clyburn, Noble Odyssey Foundation (NOF), White Lake, MI.

It has been said that heroes are the people who do what has to be done, when it needs to be done, regardless of the consequences. On a cold, clear morning in November, I stood in the presence of true American heroes and I was changed, for the better, forever.

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