MOUNT VERNON, Ind. (AP) — "Steering is tricky, Mr. Koch," West Elementary School fifth-grader Jasmyne Emerson told her science teacher Tuesday afternoon while practicing with her team's underwater robot in Mount Vernon Junior High School's natatorium.

Emerson, 11, is one of about 230 students who will be participating in the University of Southern Indiana's underwater robotics competition at 8 a.m. Saturday at the Mount Vernon school. The Southwest Indiana STEM Resource Center (SwISTEM) at USI is hosting the third annual SeaPerch Challenge. Sixty-four teams of students in grades 3-12 in southern Indiana schools are participating in the regional competition. Attendance at the event is free and open to the public.

The SeaPerch program trains educators to assist students in building underwater remote-operated vehicles, or ROVs. Students follow a curriculum that teaches basic engineering and science concepts to construct the ROVs using kits provided by the Naval Surface Warfare Center Crane Division. SeaPerch ROVs will compete in obstacles courses, a deep-water transfer course and a sprint for the middle school teams.

"The SeaPerch program was developed to give students an opportunity to learn basic engineering design concepts and science principles at a young age through an inquiry-based, marine engineering-themed project," Allison Grabert, director of the SwISTEM at USI, told the Evansville Courier & Press ( ).

This is Emerson's first year competing. She put together her team's poster, which will be on display in the public Pit Room. It includes two pages explaining how her group designed its ROV.

"You have to be careful when you solder," she said. "Because if you get too much on there, it short-circuits."

Dan Koch, Emerson's science teacher at Posey County's West Elementary, said it was difficult to narrow his 76 fifth-graders to the 15 who are competing Saturday on three teams. Koch said the kids have worked hard, and it has given them a goal to work toward.

"They are learning about teamwork, learning about engineering, learning about how to build things and how to make them run," he said. "Overall, the kids are working so well together."

A $4,500 grant from the Posey County Community Foundation made it possible for the SeaPerch program to expand in Posey County schools this year. The grant funded kits and registration fees for 25 teams, as well as an instructional workshop. Last year, only six Posey teams participated.

Each SeaPerch kit includes a PVC pipe, sections of swimming pool "noodles," cable, film canisters, wax, propellers, control boxes, a circuit board and 12-volt batteries. During the building process, teams use soldering irons, electric drills, PVC pipe-cutters and wire cutters.

The students at West Elementary started building their SeaPerch in late November and spent a few evenings each week working on it. An adviser for one of the teams, Donald Schoenbachler, said "the kids are getting their feet wet" and realizing if this is a field they may want to pursue.

"Basically, in this country right now, there is a shortage of good engineers, scientists and so forth," said Schoenbachler, a tooling engineer at Babcock & Wilcox. "And this basically is trying to encourage some of these kids to explore and get interested in this field."

Stock division teams are allowed to use only the contents of their kits; open division teams are allowed to modify their ROVs within guidelines established by the national SeaPerch program. Volunteers from Matrix Design Group LLC, Three I Design, USI, MSD of Mount Vernon and the Posey County Community Foundation will serve as pool officials on Saturday.

Farmersville Elementary School fourth-grade teacher Karen Veatch also was practicing Tuesday with three of the five Farmersville teams.

"It teaches them to think outside the box and gives them challenges to meet different challenges," she said. "It stretches their imagination."

A member of the West Ninja Fish team, Maggie Jones said she is interested in science and thought it would be fun to build an underwater robot. A fifth-grader at West, Jones, 11, enjoyed learning about and using tools she had never heard of before.

"You can't just stick different pipes together," she said. "You have to do it very specifically to make it work. And it's sort of hard to solder a certain amount of metal."

Grabert said 16 teams will advance to the state-level challenge.


Information from: Evansville Courier & Press,