All of Guam's public high schools came together Saturday to participate in the island's very first underwater robotics competition, ushering in a new fascination of STEM – or science, technology, engineering and mathematics – for students in school years to come.

Science and math teachers from each of the island's six public high schools have incorporated STEM into their lessons plans in the form of remotely operated vehicles, or ROVs, at some point over the school year, according to Tiyan High School math teacher Dymphnia San Nicolas-Diaz

Stemming from a three-day training program with McREL International in May 2016, the workshop gathered teachers from public schools and St. John's School to participate in their own underwater robotic competition as a way to promote STEM learning in the classrooms.

Saturday's event was the culmination of STEM's influence on students, bringing the schools and multiple other community partners for a regional Marine Advance Technology Education, or MATE, competition, where one winning student is now able to attend and observe the 2017 MATE international ROV competition in June at the Long Beach City College in Long Beach, California.

"This builds the confidence of our kids as far as STEM careers go," said Leah Beth Naholowaa, STEM project director. "There's a lot of jobs on island that cannot be filled because we don't have the workforce, so this program helps create STEM awareness and lets kids know that there are STEM careers out there for them."

Students simulate ocean cleanup

Using a variety of supplies and materials, including PVC pipes, wires, nets and more, students simulated an underwater "reef cleanup and recovery" at the Northern Region Sports Complex Pool in Dededo.

Using their underwater ROVs, teams from Guam's six public high schools competed against each other to collect and transfer the most items within the pool in under 15 minutes, San Nicolas-Diaz said.

ROVs were simulated to model scenarios in an ocean work site, picking up "sea urchins, aluminum cans and pieces of coral" within the pool, either recovering them or transporting them to another designated spot.

Professional divers from the Micronesian Divers Association aided students underwater while STEM majors from the University of Guam helped students above water.

Engineers from NAVFAC Marianas were also on site to judge students on their makeshift ROVs, safety precautions and robot sizes.

"We're very happy that the kids are excited," Naholowaa said. "The biggest benefit for students is allowing them to get their hands on the equipment and to be interested because once they become interested, they get to think about careers in engineering, they get to touch, they get to feel, they get to experience what it's like."

Practice makes perfect

Coming out on top for Guam's first underwater ROV competition was Tiyan High School, followed by George Washington High School in second place and Okkodo High School in third.

Alicia Whitaker, chemistry and biology teacher at Tiyan High School, said her team finished their tasks far ahead of the competition, completing in eight minutes of the allotted 15.

It started with a MATE demonstration for students, she said, where representatives from the educational marine technology program simulated ROVs for Tiyan High students using a bathtub in the school's library.

From there, DOE schools were provided with inflatable pools to practice building and using their underwater ROVs in preparation for Saturday's competition.

According to Whitaker, her class spent about three days over the school year practicing their robots, and spent another three days over spring break practicing at the Palmridge Inn.

With all of their practice time, Tiyan High's ROV team "R2C2" placed first, taking home the trophy, and allowing one representative from their team the opportunity to observe the national underwater ROV competition in Long Beach.

"They were shocking me at practice, they just got to doing what needed to be done and they were able to pull that all together," Whitaker said. "The teamwork went exceptionally well, everyone had a role and was equally important. They did a fantastic job."

A new learning experience

Incorporating different facets of STEM education, Whitaker said she was especially proud of her students for taking on many of the tasks themselves. A learning experience for all, the island might be looking at more and more homegrown STEM professionals.

"They were able to look at different aspects of science – buoyancy, frame designs – so they're really incorporating STEM," Whitaker said. "It gives them that boost of confidence and there's industries that are looking for them. This was just a taste of that and it guides them in that direction, so that's what I'm hoping for them."

Implemented four years ago, according to Naholowaa, the STEM program continues to grow on island and with students. The introduction of tinkering with underwater ROVs provide yet another hands-on activity for high school students to learn from.

"This is not just about the robotics, a lot of things came together for this and we're very excited about it," Naholowaa said. "We are going to grow this and we're going to do it again next year."

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