Flying Underwater Towards STEM Careers

Flying Underwater Towards STEM Careers

Imagine gliding beneath the waves of the Chesapeake Bay to catch a glimpse of the underwater communities of shellfish, their habitats, and how well they’re thriving. Through robotics, Maryland 4-H students will soon be able to make this underwater exploration possible. On the horizon is a fun new col­laboration that will give students the skills to build and “fly” their own underwater remotely operated vehicle (ROV), while learning about sustainable aquaculture, developing their interests in STEM fields, and growing potential career paths for the future.

The 4-H team is developing a simple, low-cost ROV kit that will operate underwater via a tethered remote control, along with activities designed to help students understand how underwater vehicles are controlled, how they are constructed to house electronics and other internal components that can’t come into con­tact with water, and to learn about some of the basic applications of underwater ROVs, especially as they relate to shellfish farming, said Mark DeMorra, state 4-H STEM specialist.

This work is a component of the Smart Sustainable Shellfish Aquaculture Management (S3AM) initiative led by the A. James Clark School of Engineering, which is developing professional ROVs with camera capabil­ities to assess the condition and health of oyster beds for aquaculture farmers. “We’re taking certain elements of the S3AM grant and incorporating them into new and existing 4-H programming," said DeMorra. “This includes not only engineering, physics, environmental science, aquaculture, and other STEM topics, but also career connections for youth.”

“At this point we’re in the pilot testing phase with the underwater ROV kits,” said Willie Lantz, principal agricultural agent in Garrett County who is named on the S3AM grant. “We are working on developing both oyster educational materials and underwater robotics activities to go along with the ROVs.”

STEM subjects and other interdisciplinary topics are important for youth development as we prepare the next generation to handle global issues like food inse­curity and environmental health. They also widen the breadth of opportunities available to students who may not have previously been interested in STEM career paths, or 4-H membership.

Providing diverse experiences and helping all Maryland youth to be college and career-ready is one of the major goals of 4-H, according to Dr. Nia Imani Fields, assistant director and program leader for Maryland 4-H. In her vision statement for the program’s future, The Purpose and Promise of 4-H, Fields wrote: “Today, 4-H reaches youth in rural, suburban, and urban communities across our state and country. We provide programming in a variety of areas ranging from animal science and agricultural literacy to civic engagement and social justice. One of our fastest growing programs in Maryland has been our STEM robotics programs.”

“Our role in the S3AM project is to provide a variety of opportunities to youth to learn about the university’s work, the oyster population, the technology that may be used, and expose them to different careers associ­ated with this work to raise awareness and, hopefully, interest in the next generation of workers that will take over,” said Amanda Wahle, senior agent with Maryland 4-H who is also named in the U.S. Department of Agriculture-National Institute of Food and Agriculture (USDA-NIFA) funded grant.

Lantz and Wahle will be working to incorporate the new robotics program into camp activities across the state, as well as assisting in developing new camp opportunities including a specialized shellfish/ROV camp in the future. The team has also incorporated the shellfish theme into the 2022 4-H Robotics Challenges, to be held at this year’s Maryland State Fair, although the ROV kit itself won’t be available to youth till the fall. Visitors are welcome to see the robotics challenges in action on Aug. 28, 2022 at the Maryland State Fair­grounds in Timonium, Md.

by Laura Wormuth : Momentum Summer 2022