Have you ever wondered how remote-operated vehicles, or ROVs, are used by scientists to collect data or various samples? Maybe instead you are curious how engineers build and fly ROVs in the ocean, or what challenges they face while building and navigating ROVs. These were some of the questions asked and answered by a group of twelve middle school girls from Sweetwater Middle School in Atlanta during Georgia Aquarium’s ROV camp from April 3-7, 2023. Over the course of five days, these girls learned various engineering skills that allowed them to design, assemble, and operate an ROV. They learned how engineers brainstorm solutions to problems by creating, testing, and improving a design. During the first two days of the camp, students learned how to strip, splice, and solder wire, as well as ensure their connections were waterproof. Students also were given the chance to practice their navigation skills by flying drones. These skills were then applied to the actual construction of their ROVs, where they were able to assemble the control box and attach it to the tether and propellers. Once the main parts of the ROV were completed, each group was able to design and build the frame of their ROV. All four groups were able to take their design from a paper sketch to a finished 3D shape, taking into consideration the materials available and the need to be waterproof. Led by Georgia Aquarium Environmental Educators, the students were able to integrate science, technology, engineering, and math skills to complete their Angelfish ROVs from the Marine Advanced Technology Education center (MATE).
The benefits of having them work in groups to build their ROVs was seeing the different methods of problem-solving and design strategies, and seeing the encouragement they offered to one another as they practiced their newly learned skills. Each ROV was uniquely designed with several different shapes being utilized to construct their frames. Each group faced the challenge of balancing three propellers on the frame in a way that wouldn’t cause the ROV to tip or fall over once submerged.
On top of using the engineering design process, the girls also had the opportunity to hear from several women in STEM careers, both in person and via Zoom. From how ROV engineers utilize biomimicry to design devices that look or act like animals, to understanding how constraints impact design choices, these speakers encouraged the girls not to become discouraged, but to embrace challenges, learn new skills, and pursue their dreams – especially in the STEM field. The students explored the science behind buoyancy, used technology to create a functioning control box, and applied the engineering design process and geometry skills to construct their frames from PVC pipes. Students were also able to identify the purpose of ROVs as tools to help scientists explore the ocean, aid in ocean clean-up projects, or collect data and samples.
The highlight of the week was when the students were able to finally test their ROVs to see how well they worked in the water. Each group was given the opportunity to pilot their ROVs in the Sea Lion Pier 225 gallery pool. Final adjustments to maintain negative buoyancy were made, and all four ROVs were able to successfully navigate and explore the pool. The groups were even able to challenge themselves to practice landing the ROVs on a specific target area. The biggest challenge they faced during this portion of the camp was finding ways to improve the design by identifying any issues. One common fix that needed to be made was removing materials to make the ROV less buoyant so it could navigate more easily through the water column. This gave the students an excellent opportunity to practice the engineering design process as they tested and improved their designs.
Opportunities for exposure to STEM careers are important for young girls, especially young girls of color. Exposure to new career fields like this can spark a newfound passion for science and engineering. These skills are also extremely valuable regardless of the career they pursue as they learn to problem solve, identify roadblocks and collaborate with others. One of the biggest takeaways from this was how empowering it can be to work with a team of all women in a traditionally male-dominated field. One of the goals of this camp is to help build not only competency but also confidence in the student’s abilities. As these students continue their education, we hope they will not only continue to pursue their dreams, but also share their knowledge and skills as they inspire more young girls, and young girls of color, to join STEM fields.
By Billie Snieder, environmental educator, Georgia Aquarium