SCHENECTADY -- Standing at the edge of the Schenectady High School pool Monday, eighth-graders Jackson Taylor and Isabella Gabriele raced through an underwater obstacle course.
Each Oneida Middle School student clutched a remote control, pushing levers forward and backward and pressing buttons to make their underwater robots rise and sink through a series of hoops.
They started head-to-head, but Isabella’s robot quickly whizzed into the lead. She maneuvered her bot with ease, as her partner, Tasnim Chowdhury, also in eighth grade, took special care of the slack from the robot’s power cord. If the cord got tangled, that would be a major setback. The team clocked in at just over one minute – a best for them and a winning time, if they can maintain that speed.
“I’m used to controlling -- a lot of controlling,” Isabella said as she practiced another underwater event, referring to her video game experience. A few minutes later, practicing on his own, Jackson made it through the obstacle course in under a minute.
The two Oneida teams, part of the SeaPerch challenge competition, compete against each other in a battle of engineering and design wits. The SeaPerch teams scored regional victories last month and are headed to a national competition in June.
At a regional competition filled with teams from Niskayuna, Guilderland and other area school districts – 51 teams in all – the Oneida teams tied for first place, scoring both of the region’s qualifying spots in the nationwide competition in Massachusetts next month.
“It was a total, total shocker,” said Jacqueline Rowen, a seventh-grade technology teacher and the SeaPerch adviser at Oneida. “But it was awesome.”
The International SeaPerch Challenge will take place June 1 at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth in North Dartmouth.
The 2018 SeaPerch program -- the Oneida program was launched about five years ago -- kicked off in December, as the students started to build their underwater robots. Each team of three or four students starts with a kit – PVC piping, motors, the pieces to a controller and a long cord designed for the water – and they design and build their underwater devices from the kits. In February, they started practicing at the high school pool.
Jackson was one of the few returning students from last year’s teams. He learned from his mistakes, he said, ditching a balloon-based flotation system in favor of small floaties that attach to both sides of the submersible. He said he enjoys the science behind the competition.
“For buoyancy, I was like, let’s use a balloon,” he said of last year’s plans. “But that did not work.”
The SeaPerch competition includes two events: a timed obstacle course and a finesse course that requires teams to move various objects from one underwater platform to another. The scores combine, and the team with the best overall performance is the winner.
In the Capital Region, the Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory sponsors engineers who serve as mentors to the different teams, nearly 50 mentors in all.
Doug Baldrey, a materials engineer at the nuclear laboratory, has mentored Schenectady SeaPerch teams for six years, including a 2015 visit to the national competition. He said allowing the students to tweak their designs helps them understand how little changes affect performance and the importance of engineering concepts like motors and buoyancy – the goal is to keep the submersibles level as they cut through the water.
"Getting your buoyancy down is big,” Baldrey said.
After the victory last month, Rowen called Oneida Principal Tony Farina with the good news. “We won,” she told him. But Farina had just one competitor in mind.
“‘Wait, did you guys beat Niskayuna?’” Rowen said, recalling Farina’s reaction. She had a simple answer: “We won. We beat everybody.”