WaterBotics Summer Camp Returns to Stevens to Help Groom Next Generation of Engineers

7/23/2014

Science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) jobs take more than twice as long to fill as other openings, according to a new Brookings Institution study.

The issue has become a national priority because the growing shortage of workers qualified to fill science and engineering jobs threatens U.S. competitiveness in the 21st century economy.

Actively engaging young people to become interested in science and engineering has been the mission of WaterBotics, a National Science Foundation sponsored program first launched by Stevens Institute of Technology eight years ago. The program, which was created and developed by the Center for Innovation in Engineering and Science Education (CIESE) at Stevens through NSF grants, has since grown beyond New Jersey to 10 other states, Puerto Rico and internationally, and continues to expand.

To the delight of many middle and high schoolers, WaterBotics is making its return to Stevens, which is holding five-day WaterBotics camps for students to learn about engineering design during the weeks of July 14, 21, and 28.

In previous years, the five-day camp had only two session options. This year, WaterBotics added an additional third week just for Hoboken residents. Thanks to a grant from the PSEG Foundation, Hoboken residents were able to register at no cost.

The goal of the program is to simply lift the shroud of mystery surrounding science and engineering careers for young people. “WaterBotics opens their horizons about the wide variety of such careers and builds confidence in their abilities in this arena,” said Arthur Camins, director of the CIESE.

Using LEGO materials, students ranging in age from 10 to 14, are instructed to plan, design, build, program, test and redesign underwater robots.

While it may sound like fun and games, students are tasked with real-world “missions” for their robots to complete, much like how engineers design solutions to human problems. For instance, a team’s robot must grab a single ping pong ball, simulating the rescue of a drowning swimmer, or gather a bunch of ping pong balls, the equivalent of cleaning up an oil spill.

“Designing the curriculum so that each engineering task is framed by a mission with a purpose broadens participation,” said Camins.

CIESE deputy director Mercedes McKay

CIESE deputy director Mercedes McKay adds that the underwater environment poses additional challenges and science concepts that are not found in a land-based environment.

CIESE deputy director Mercedes McKay

"The motion of an underwater vehicle, with six degrees of freedom is more complex than any terrestrial vehicle design students may have encountered in typical robotics projects.  Additional engineering issues include propulsion, drag, buoyancy and stability," explained McKay.

The idea of using LEGOs may appear whimsical, but the selection serves a purpose. LEGO has developed software and controlling devices that make it possible to operate robots, says Camins.

“Optimization through iterative improvement is the key feature of engineering, and easily manipulatable LEGO pieces make rapid prototyping possible.”

Participation in WaterBotics requires no prior experience in programming or working with robots. The program was intentionally designed that way to be as inclusive as possible, according to McKay. Once enrolled, students are grouped according to skill level. 

One of the primary goals of WaterBotics is to develop a talented diverse workforce in science and engineering fields.  With the number of women in STEM careers at dismal rates, engaging girls to become interested in STEM careers has been one of the distinguishing accomplishments of WaterBotics. Nationally, more than 50 percent of WaterBotics participants are girls, says Camins.

Alyssa Ortiz, Yasmine Petrocelli and Skyler Williams were three of the 24 participants during the first week of WaterBotics, which was open only to students from Hoboken. Ortiz, a 14-year-old at Hoboken Junior Senior High School, is already thinking about a career in engineering. In fact, she has taken several campus tours of Stevens. One of the things that caught her eye during a tour, she says, was a robotics lab at Stevens. Add to the fact that she likes working with her hands, and Ortiz immediately jumped at the chance to participate in WaterBotics when her mother brought up the idea to her.

Yasmine Petrocelli and Skyler Williams are friends from a charter school in Hoboken, and about to go into the sixth grade. Petrocelli describes building robots as “fun” and loves getting “messy and wet.” She says her interest in engineering was helped by role models within her own family who are engineers and architects, and would like to follow in their footsteps. Her fellow classmate, Skyler Williams, credits her science teacher for teaching her about engineering and how it works.

Making science and engineering approachable and understandable isn’t solely for the young. According to Camins, WaterBotics serves to teach several important lessons for kids and adults: failure is an opportunity to learn and improve; science and engineering are not just for the talented few; and collaboration is a more effective route to success than trying to win on your own.

For parents who are given a full report of each day’s activities by their children, the success of WaterBotics comes through loud and clear by the people who matter most to them. The mother of one 10-year-old student shared that her son could not stop talking about what he and his teammates had built, and how excited he was about the next day’s “mission.”

“I think the curriculum with the common goal to accomplish the ‘missions’ really motivated the students to share their ideas and cooperate,” she said. “Huge kudos to the staff at Stevens for making this learning experience organized, effective, engaging and totally fun.”