By REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — Van Antwerp Middle School’s underwater robots have hit the Niskayuna High School pool to practice for their second crack at the regional SeaPerch Robotics challenge, and, this year, things are serious.
“Last year we were just starting this thing,” said SeaPerch coach Tom Blechinger, a Van Antwerp technology teacher.
And when it came time to go head-to-head with other local teams at Ballston Spa High School, things didn’t go so well.
“One of the things we learned last year was, this year we want to have them actually do some of the mock activities,” Blechinger said.
Even with a winless record, SeaPerch is still a valuable educational experience for Van Antwerp Middle School students who participate.
The program, sponsored by the Office of Naval Research, involves building an underwater remote-operated vehicle from scratch, then practicing driving it through a variety of obstacles and challenges. Each team of students is mentored by an engineer from Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory in Niskayuna.
“We really like how the kids get to work with an actual engineer,” Blechinger said. “These engineers talk to the kids about what they do at work.”
Jason Thompson, an engineer who said similar programs propelled him toward his career at KAPL, said what feels like play can turn out to be extremely practical.
“They gain a sense of electronics and what has to go into something like an ROV, and they develop engineering principles,” he said.
Lessons learned from the previous year are especially evident in one team of eighth-graders, three of whom competed during Van Antwerp’s inaugural year at the challenge.
“We changed the circuitry in the remote,” said Kamryn Almas, who helped her team sketch out a design that looks more like a Star Wars spaceship than the squared-off PVC robot whose architecture comes mapped out in the SeaPerch kits.
Teams are allowed to customize their robots almost endlessly, so the more experienced kids rarely follow directions.
“The kids that all returned this year, we’ve given them kind of free reign to do whatever they want to,” Blechinger said.
“We had some really crazy ideas like spheres, and some practical ideas like cubes,” said teammate Aditya Kanakasabapathy.
“We spent a lot of time testing the thruster,” added Brian Thompson.
All these factors made the team of four and their engineer mentor, Walter Walczak, feel confident about their chances at the May 7 faceoff against teams from Ballston Spa and Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Schenectady.
This time last year, pool practices were far less structured. But the 29 participants this year have the benefit of hindsight, so when they’re not tweaking their robots’ designs, they’re timing themselves as they zip through hoops or up a ladder, or try to guide a ball into the smallest hole on a game board for points.
“Today we’re going to run a mock competition so they can improve their time and maybe their designs,” said Jennifer Rizzo, a manager at KAPL who oversees Niskayuna students’ and engineers’ progress as the competition gets closer.
The stakes are higher this year than they were last year, too. The top two teams at the Ballston Spa tournament — about 30 are registered — will move on to a national competition in Washington, D.C.
“We want to get one of Niskayuna’s out there,” Rizzo said. “I feel like we’re prepared.”