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Educators Learn From Navy STEM Experts During SeaPerch Challenge

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Roughly 25 middle- and high-school educators from New York City (NYC) boroughs attended hands-on training at the Jacob K. Javits Federal Building Oct. 18 to create an underwater remotely operated vehicle (ROV) used in the SeaPerch Challenge.

The SeaPerch mentors are from local NYC U.S. Navy commands who volunteer their time to properly train teachers and demonstrate science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) concepts to help create the ROV.

"Every time we graduate an engineer in this county, three graduate from India and 10 graduate from China," said Lt. Cmdr. Michael Fourte, Navy City Outreach officer for the Northeast Region. "We need to do everything we can do to inspire the next generation of technical experts."

Fourte said the program started with a lengthy proposal to the Office of Naval Research in 2012 to fund a pilot outreach program in NYC and Los Angeles. In 2014, the program expanded to seven cities with additional funding from the Chief of Naval Personnel.

Chief Navy Career Counselor Freddie McAbee, assistant Navy City Outreach officer for the Northeast Region, said this program focuses on exposing students to STEM. "If we can get the younger generation interested in STEM earlier, they’re more prone to going into those fields down the road."

Training is the first step in the program. Now these teachers head back to their schools with the demo they built and instruct a team of students on how to create the ROV. They then participate in a head-to-head competition with other teams from regional schools. If a team wins the regional contest, then it’s off to the national competition, where they face the best student teams from all across the country.

Dan Mejias, a teacher at St. Hope Leadership Academy who has taught for 13 years, said when the kids get their hands on a project, it becomes more fun for them.

"It piques their interest, and anything we can do to get them more interested in careers in the future is great," Mejias said. "This allows the students to apply what we teach in theory during class. It makes learning real."

The U.S. Navy is partnered with SeaPerch to develop young minds to gain interest in STEM. These areas of study are in high demand in the Department of Defense as well as in the private sector.

Aviation Electronics Technician First Class Dwarka Ramdyal, assigned to Navy Recruiting District NYC, said he was excited to work as a mentor with the SeaPerch Challenge this year.

"I’m here to assist the teachers in the construction of the ROVs," Ramdyal said. "This is a good program that brings our Navy knowledge to the classroom environment."

SeaPerch was initially developed as a college-level program, but a DOD Joint Advertising Market Research & Studies study in 2012 indicated that children ages 9 to 14 rule out potential job fields based on social desirability, so the program focus was switched to that age bracket.

Regina Chinnici, a 16-year educator who works at Rachel Carson High School in Brooklyn, New York, asked her school to let her bring SeaPerch onboard this year.

"I was very excited to see that the Navy was involved with the program because I have a son in the Navy," Chinnici said. "I think we should partner, and it’s good for the students. We really need STEM people in the future, and SeaPerch removes the barriers and fear students perceive after they start touching the materials. I told them I was going for this training today, and they’re really excited to see what I bring back to show them."

During the competition phase of the SeaPerch Challenge, students guide their ROV through an obstacle course and compete in various other exercises to show their skill in creating a fully functional underwater ROV.

Lana Bunning, an eighth-grade science teacher at Mott Hall Bridges Academy in Brooklyn, said "It works. This is my second year running the SeaPerch Challenge, and I found that the children who struggle in class are really attracted to the hands-on element of this program. They love seeing something they actually build do something, and then to get out of the neighborhood to compete was exciting for them."

"We run this as an after-school program, and we have kids begging to be a part of it," said Mejias. "We end up with a full house of kids who give up their own time after school because they find this fun."

"[The students] are very competitive, so having a goal at the end of creating the ROV makes the students excited to participate," said Chinnici.

According to the STEM strategic roadmap released by Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus in 2011, "large numbers of Naval STEM professionals will be retiring over the next few years, and fewer American students are graduating with the preparation and interest needed to pursue STEM careers."

The SeaPerch Challenge provides the Navy with an opportunity for community outreach while inspiring teachers, engaging students through hands-on learning and sailor mentorship, as well as educating students and encouraging them to seek an employable STEM career in the future.

"Get involved," said McAbee. "Elementary through high school students can participate. It’s a neat way to create an after-school project for kids that will keep them interested and provide them access to something that they normally wouldn’t be exposed to."

Personnel Specialist Seaman Donavan Samlal, assigned to Navy Operational Support Center NYC, said he was glad he volunteered as a program mentor.

"I’m actually going to one of the schools where I’ll work with a team of students and their teacher to build their underwater ROV," Samlal said. "It’s a good opportunity to give back to the community and help the kids."

For more information, visit the Navy’s STEM Career Tool.

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