Student-Designed Bots Take to the Pool

Students in Travis Menghini’s Electronics and Robotics class created robots to explore a new environment: underwater.

It all began in December 2018, when Leigh Northrup, Dean of Innovation and Technology at Cannon School in North Carolina, visited campus as this year’s Harbison Lecture presenter (see here). During his presentation, he shared his experience with our STEM faculty and helped launch a new underwater robotics program here at MICDS. Together, they created underwater robots through SeaPerch, an innovative robotics program, and tested them in our William R. Orthwein Sr. Pool.

Mr. Menghini embraced the possibilities and launched the SeaPerch program in his class, which is part of the Maker Science Strand in the Upper School. His goal was to get students thinking creatively about challenges and solutions, so he gave them a lot of latitude, starting with letting them choose their own teams. Each team created an obstacle and mission before using low-cost, easily accessible parts like PVC pipes and pool noodles to design and construct an underwater vehicle that could navigate a variety of challenges.

While their classroom lab has a sink, there’s nothing better than getting into a large body of water to see how the bots perform. Thankfully, we’ve got the Steward Family Aquatic Center. After three weeks of designing, building, testing and tweaking, the teams were finally ready to compete. They descended on the pool (with a lifeguard on hand, of course) and launched their bots. Challenges ranged from collecting and pushing a water polo ball into a net to maneuvering through hurdles and racing against other bots.

Kenny Townsend ’19 said, “It’s more fun than I anticipated because Mr. Menghini gives us the creativity to do anything we want and adapt the robots. As we run into a challenge, we can think up the wildest solution and try it.”

His teammate Lucas McCarty ’21 agreed. “Our model wouldn’t sink or float, so we bent it. The ability to solve problems like that has been fun. We worked through struggles.” They called their bot Stingray, even adding a zip-tie tail.

Students gathered poolside to cheer on their bots and offer suggestions to drivers. Caroline Abel ’19 smiled and shook her head. “It always turns into Battle Bots. It’s constant with every project.” She and Sophia Puertas ’19 named their construction CatBot. They learned that while building for water offers a whole different set of challenges, it’s not impossible, especially with the simple components of the SeaPerch kits. Sophia said, “I thought it was really cool how it was actually plausible for us to do this, and not as hard as we thought. People could do this at home.”

It was clear the students had enjoyed both the process and the competition at the end.

Mr. Menghini explained that the goal of the project was not to win in the pool, but it was to learn from the process. He said, “Ultimately I don’t grade students on the success or failure of the project; I grade them on their process of developing the robots, which is encapsulated in their engineering notebooks.”

The SeaPerch underwater robot project will be offered as part of the Eliot Summer Academy with Middle Schoolers.

Want to see what an underwater robot sees? Check out this video: