What happens when fifth-graders are left to their own devices and asked to build a robot?
Columbia River Maritime Museum tried it out last week at the Barbey Maritime Center, giving about 150 fifth-graders from Lewis and Clark Elementary School the chance to design, build and deploy their own underwater robots.
The invitation was an Astoria-only pilot for the new Under the Sea STEM program, an effort to engage students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics at the museum.
“The main goal for me with the education department here is to make everything hands-on and activity based,” said Nate Sandel, who manages the museum’s education department.
Six fifth-grade classes visited the museum last week, two per day Tuesday through Thursday. Sandel gave students their mission: Design, build and deploy an underwater robot to retrieve one of the seven missing carronade short-barrel cannons of the USS Shark, a schooner that wrecked at the mouth of the Columbia River in 1846. Do it all in 66 minutes or less.
One cannon found by mail carrier George Luce in 1898 is a namesake of Cannon Beach. Two more USS Shark carronades were found by a 12-year-old girl walking the beach with her father near Arch Cape in 2008. The cannons were restored and are now displayed at the Maritime Museum.
After receiving some basic instructions Wednesday, students from Keri Domer and Jillian Wood’s classes split off in teams of two and three, and left on their own to finish their robot and retrieve a carronade within 66 minutes. Bryce Yeager, Aria Larsen and Darby McCleary nicknamed their submersible B.A.D. in an acronym of their first names.
“For once, we’re in control,” McCleary said, excited at the prospect of students being left to fend for themselves.
She and her partners sketched a quick mock-up of their submersible. The workroom at the maritime center Wednesday was bustling with teams scurrying in between their workstations and supply totes, snapping together PVC pipe segments and joints, figuring out how to arrange their engines and deciding how best to buoy and balance their submersibles.
Teams tested their robots in a backyard pool the museum erected in the breezeway of the center. Teams dunked their robots, the electric motors tethered to controllers, into the pool to try to grab the cannons — green PVC pipes laying on the bottom of the pool, waiting to be snagged like prizes in an arcade claw machine.
With each test, team B.A.D.’s submersible became more and more stable. Within 20 minutes, they had a stable robot. For grabbing the carronades, team B.A.D. had initially gone with skeleton hands — mostly useless for grabbing, Sandel said, but good for throwing other youth off and testing their ability to distinguish looks from utility. By the third dip in the pool, B.A.D.’s submersible was stable and close to capturing a cannon with a taped-on clothes hanger.
“We are so close,” exclaimed Larson during the third pool test, her teammate Yeager inches from hooking a carronade. “Guys, we have 15 minutes left.”
“You don’t always see this level of engagement,” Domer said of her students.
She and Wood slipped in between the tables, observing their students from a distance, but letting them figure things out.
Only one team’s submersible retrieved a carronade Wednesday, not including B.A.D. But Wood said all the students participating in the mission met a science goal as part of the Common Core State Standards, a nationalized set of educational standards used by 42 states. The goal involves constructing a model for a specific task and testing to see if it works.
For the museum, Sandel said, it’s a more immersive way to engage students in the science behind the maritime industry, in addition to doing tours and lectures.
Full STEAM Ahead
The official Under the Sea STEM program kicked off this week, with fifth-graders from Seattle coming to build robots and search for cannons. The museum plans to expand the program to different grades and take the program on the road.
Under the Sea STEM is part of the Full STEAM Ahead theme of programs the museum offers, including tours of the Lightship Columbia. The museum is also registering middle-schoolers for an after-school robotics club that is participating in the nationwide Marine Advanced Technology Education submersible competition, which already features teams from Warrenton High School and Clatsop Community College.
The Museum in the Schools program, which sends field educators into districts, has already reached more than 100,000 students in the region.
“We go to kids too far away to make it to the museum,” said Field Educator Kelly McKenzie, who is visiting classes in nine different school districts to talk about hydroelectric dams, oil spills, commercial fishing, buoyancy and lighthouses.