Making waves

The Utah Underwater Robotics program has been operating for seven years now, and it's influenced thousands of kids

An underwater robotics outreach program for Utah middle and elementary schools? Oh, it’s a real thing. And it’s been around for seven years.

“[Since the program’s been running for seven years now], that means we’ve impacted well over 8,000 students,” said Geoff Wright, managing director of the Utah Underwater Robotics program and professor of Technology Engineering Studies at Brigham Young University.

The program gives students a hands-on learning experience to build underwater robots while simultaneously learning concepts in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Participating students also have the chance to learn about basic circuits, buoyancy, simple robotics, material science, and innovation.

It’s also a great opportunity for engineering and technology students to volunteer in a setting where they have a chance to get their feet wet, so to speak.

Maddy Mae Hamilton worked as a pool helper with this year’s program, setting up obstacles, saving robots, and assessing completion of the tasks. She studies technology and engineering studies at BYU. For Maddy, getting her feet wet meant working closely with the kids, something she hopes to do in the future.

“I am studying to be a technology teacher,” Maddy said. “[Volunteering with Utah Underwater Robotics] gave me the opportunity to practice working with the kids. It inspired [my] thoughts on how to more effectively teach technology and get a wide variety of students involved in hands-on learning.”

Maddy said she also learned that it’s important for students to know they have done something they can be proud of. That being said, it was equally important for her to be honest in her assessment of their work because students need to have opportunities “to fail and learn from it.”

Brady Moon studies electrical engineering at BYU. He has volunteered at this and past UUR programs in a wide variety of capacities, including his current position as student director.

“I started as a volunteer helping the teams at Dixon Middle School,” Moon said. “While helping those teams, I wanted to get more involved with helping the program continue moving forward. I became the technical director where I assisted the director at the time—Kip Hacking—in planning the challenges, making instructional videos, ordering ROV kit parts, improving the kits, and planning and running the annual competition. After helping Kip for another year, he moved on from UUR and I became the director.”

This year, in particular, held special meaning for Moon. It’s the first year that his hometown of Duchesne (population 1,755) was able to compete in the competition.

“I loved being able to watch them compete,” Moon said. “It felt like I was able to play a part in bringing a program to my elementary school that I would have loved to be a part of when I was younger. UUR is such an amazing program in that it gives kids confidence to learn new concepts and then use those concepts in tangible ways. UUR is also unique in that our kits use so many parts that are extremely inexpensive and easy to find. The kids are empowered to continue creating with what they have around their homes, and aren’t limited by a budget.”

Volunteering for UUR has helped Moon realize his personal love for teaching, as well as shown him how to make learning experiences “fun and high-quality.”

“I feel blessed to have this opportunity [to volunteer for UUR] as part of my undergraduate education,” Moon said. “My favorite part of every year is the annual competition where we get to see the hundreds of students who have been working hard for months to create their robots.”

Benjamin Jensen, a BYU student studying electrical engineering, also enjoyed seeing the robots the kids had created.

“When I was their age I doubt I could or would have made even a basic pipe robot, but these kids came wide-eyed and excited to share their creations. [There were] cameras, 3-D printed propellers, even integrated PlayStation controllers, all with high hopes and big dreams.”

Jensen volunteered with the program during the past winter semester and was then hired to help manage after the competition in March. His tasks involved checking in on the local middle school periodically to help students and teachers in the UUR club. He also worked to set the stage for competition day, direction teams, arranging tables and chairs, and answering questions.

Jensen had similar realizations as Hamilton and Moon did for increasing kids’ appreciation and excitement about learning, not just in the here and now, but in the future as well.

“[UUR] helped me realize how important and beneficial extracurricular projects and activities are,” Jensen said. “These kids weren’t just learning in class, they were getting hands on experience that would help prepare them so much more for their careers and for further study.”

Further study can take a bit of effort and be difficult at times, but Jensen isn’t worried about these kids--or his own dedication, for that matter—to learning, on the contrary, working with the kids makes him excited about the coming years.

“I think the students’ enthusiasm is contagious because working with them always leaves my head filled with ideas and a desire to work hard and do something important,” he said. “These kids are awesome, and I am excited to continue learning alongside them.”

The kids’ enthusiasm is contagious across all volunteer positions at UUR.

As a head director of the program, you wouldn’t think there would be a lot of time to interact with the kids. But Justen Gardner, an electrical engineering major at BYU, says that working with and for the kids has been the best part of his experience.

“I love being part of something that hundreds of kids look forward to all year,” he said. “The competition is an exciting thing for them, and designing a challenge that will keep them engaged and [happy] while pushing them to new limits is a cool challenge for me. I love seeing how happy the kids are to build robots and compete with them.”

Just like all the volunteers before him, Gardner has developed a firm belief in the importance of giving the kids chances to grow and learn through a variety of ways.

“I strongly believe kids need opportunities to experience lots of different disciplines,” Gardner said. “They need to be exposed to computer programming, engineering, music, and community participation while in their elementary school years. For so long, we have encouraged kids to seek a Nobel Prize or to run for President or be a professional athlete if they want to. But there are only a few who do that. The people in this world that really make a difference are the teachers, designers, engineers, etc. Kids need to experience a day in the life of these types of professionals so they can know what to expect from adult life.”

But perhaps the coolest thing about the UUR program is that it isn’t just changing the lives of the elementary and middle school kids who participate in it.

“Without this experience I would still feel very much like a student,” Gardner admitted. “I have been given the opportunity to be in charge of something real, something that has thousands of dollars from sponsors and hundreds of participants from across the state. I feel like an adult. I feel proud to have been trusted with a portion of this responsibility.”

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