Oh, the places they'll go! Students from Michigan and American Samoa bond over robotics

By Larisa Bennett

March 2019

PVC for the frame. Bilge pump motors for the thrusters. Simple switches as controls. And about a full day to build. These are the components that the Stockbridge High School InvenTeam uses to create the ideal remotely operated vehicle (ROV). Recently, these students traveled 7,000 miles away from home to National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa to engage in outreach at local Samoan high schools. While there, they also helped sanctuary staff conduct research using their ROVs.

students assemble an rov
Students from Stockbridge, Michigan traveled to American Samoa in order to conduct ROV workshops at the local high schools and give advice to students on starting their own underwater robotics teams. Photo: Stockbridge InvenTeam

Stockbridge, Michigan, is a small town in the middle of the state’s “mitten,” with a population of about 1,200. There is no ocean in sight, but Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary – the only United States freshwater marine sanctuary – is located close by at Lake Huron. The lake is the perfect inspiration for underwater exploration. Since 2010, the Stockbridge High School underwater robotics team has been building ROVs under the supervision of their teacher Bob Richards. Their ROVs are tethered underwater vehicles controlled from the surface that can be outfitted with camera systems, water quality monitoring systems, and a variety of other equipment used to study the underwater environment.

rov made out of pvc
ROVs are used to study the underwater world and can range from a small boxy shape like this one pictured here to the size of a small truck. They are maneuvered from the surface and can take photos and measurements as well as pick up objects. Photo: Stockbridge InvenTeam

This venture has led the students on trips to Palau, Hawai‘i, and NASA’s neutral buoyancy lab in Houston. The students have also collaborated with the nearby Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary to locate and explore shipwrecks in Lake Huron, and even airplanes flown by famed World War II Tuskegee Airmen that crashed in the Great Lakes during training exercises. Most recently, the team traveled to National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa.

Thirteen students – 11 girls and 2 boys – arrived in American Samoa, a South Pacific island territory of the United States, on Thanksgiving evening last fall. There, they joined forces with the local high schools of American Samoa to engage in underwater robotics and Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) education.

While in American Samoa, the Stockbridge students spoke with over 1,000 students at eight different high schools. They also hosted a two-day workshop on building ROVs, which was attended by students from all 12 American Samoa high schools as well as students from the local community college. Isabel Gaoteote Halatuituia, the education coordinator at National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa, was enthused about the results of the Stockbridge students’ efforts. She says that “the Michigan students inspired and empowered [American Samoan students] into a career in STEM as an option.”

students present in a classroom
The outreach and ROV workshop were highly successful and students on both sides walked away having gained new knowledge. Photo: Stockbridge InvenTeam

In addition to working with local high school and community college students, the Stockbridge team assisted sanctuary staff with research. They used ROVs they had built to conduct a bottomfish survey around Aunu’u Island, in areas of the sanctuary that are relatively unexplored. Video shot during this expedition shows some of the unique species that live in area waters such as yellowlip emperor fish, triggerfish, goatfish, and blacktip reef sharks.

snorkelers near a boat
The Stockbridge students spent several days assisting sanctuary staff. They used ROVs they built that were outfitted with cameras to conduct a bottomfish survey around Aunu’u Island. Photo: Stockbridge InvenTeam

Tracy Hajduk, national education coordinator for NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, stresses the importance of such experiences for protecting the health of the ocean. She explains that “students who get to see first-hand how we work to monitor and conserve national marine sanctuaries gain a sense of how important these places are and the work that goes into protecting them.”

Today’s students are the next generation that will be tasked with protecting these resources. Learning from sanctuary staff introduces them to the world of ocean conservation. Hajduk says that “national marine sanctuaries are living classrooms where real-world problems, science, and solution are put to the test every day. The more students that can be exposed to this, the better.”

While surveying sanctuary waters and teaching robotics, the students from Michigan became acquainted with Samoan culture. A favorite experience was when they learned how to prepare and cook a traditional Sunday dinner in an umu or “earth oven” using hot rocks, sharpened sticks, and taro leaves. One of the Stockbridge students, Michelle Zemke, enthusiastically related her favorite thing was “meeting all the people and experiencing their culture – it’s truly amazing!” Another student, Katelyn Knieper, was impressed with how open American Samoans are: you can “walk up to someone on the street and they’ll have a conversation with you.”

man using an umu
An umu is made by digging a shallow hole, lighting a fire, and placing rocks onto the flames. When the rocks are hot enough the food, wrapped in taro leaves, is placed on top of them and covered in layers of dirt and banana leaves to trap heat. Let steam for about four hours and voila, you have a feast! Photo: Stockbridge InvenTeam

Stockbridge teacher and InvenTeam leader Bob Richards says that the team hopes to return to American Samoa next year and turn this collaborative experience into a multi-year project that will have tangible results. Richards and his students are on a quest to visit every national marine sanctuary with their ROVs in order to engage in citizen science and outreach. Two down, eleven to go!

Larisa Bennett is an outreach intern for NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries and a graduate student at UNC Chapel Hill.