Students learn physics by building rockets, robots

EVERETT, Wash. (AP) - Students at Archbishop Murphy High School are taking a hands-on approach to scientific exploration. They're launching rockets into the air and probing underwater with robots.

Though these freshmen aren't yet allowed get behind the wheel of a car, they've built remotely operated vehicles that can cruise down to about 40 feet below the water's surface.

Their science teacher, Tom Wier, came up with the school's first-ever underwater robot project. Students designed, built and tested four different remotely operated vehicles, or ROVs.

"It's engineering at its core," Wier said. "I wanted everybody to have a concrete object that they cared about to start learning physics."

Students taking freshman science from Wier worked together to complete one robot in each of the four classes. They came up with a different design for each vehicle.

"It was really fun," said Kaylah Hogle, a designer in one of the classes.

The students built the frame by cutting up about 10 feet of PVC pipe. They used connectors to put the pieces together.

Hogle is on the school's robotics team. She said the tools the class used worked more effectively than those in her competitive experience.

The underwater robots are simplified versions of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's advanced ROV, known as Hercules, Wier said.

"Ours is basically a mini-version," said Mitchell Lovell, a student on the motor team.

Students installed three motors in their ROV. One provides vertical movement, while the other two power the robot as it travels side-to-side. Air-filled buoyancy chambers were added to help it float.

Students also installed a camera so they could see to drive. They wired a control box to operate the vehicle from dry land.

They used a tub of water to troubleshoot their vehicles in the classroom.

Once completed, students took their vehicles to a pool for testing. They threw toys, such as Barbie dolls, into the water and chased the objects with the robots.

"It was pretty fun," Lovell said. "I learned that making a homemade ROV is easier with the right tools."

Lovell said he previously tried to build one at home but was unsuccessful.

The students made additional adjustments after the pool testing. In the end, all four robots were operating successfully.

"They all worked quite well," Wier said.

Through the project, students said, they gained hands-on experience with several scientific concepts, including gravity, density, buoyancy and free motion. They also learned problem solving and engineering skills.

Wier funded the project with a $1,100 Fulcrum Foundation STAR grant. The freshmen are expected to leave their robots behind for next year's class to add capabilities to.

"They're our hand-me-downs," Lovell said.

Now that the freshmen have completed their underwater exploration, they've turned their attention toward the sky. This week, they built and launched rockets as part of their next hands-on mission.