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Tech-savvy youths shine in robotics contest

We are the champions: John Madeiro, Kevin Sunga, Justin Smith, Ruth and Matthew Mello-Cann, Tanajae Ray, McLaren Lowe, Jakari Renfroe, Kari Richards and Tatiana Swainson (Photograph supplied)

In a strong display of putting theory into practice, McLaren Lowe went off the deep end.

The design and technology teacher was making good on a promise to his students — that he would leap off the high dive if they won the annual Underwater Robotics Challenge, sponsored by HSBC in conjunction with the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences.

This is the second year of the competition and the second win for his Clearwater Middle School class.

Twenty-eight student teams spent months building the robots — known as remotely operated vehicles, or ROVs — during after-school programmes with their teachers, parents and other adult mentors before the final, which took place at the National Sports Centre pool on Saturday,

The programme was offered as a professional development course by the Ministry of Education, in partnership with BIOS and the Mid-Atlantic Robotics In Education initiative.

This year’s theme, “From the Gulf of Mexico to Jupiter’s moon Europa: ROV Encounters in Inner and Outer Space”, tasked the teams to create research vehicles for an environment that mimics that of Europa, which has been compared with the harsh climate of Antarctica.

“We had a Skype conference with a scientist in Antarctica who shared his experiences and the kids got really excited from that,” Mr Lowe said.

There were setbacks. Right before the competition, the boys’ group struggled with the ROV’s mechanical arm and students and parents put in late shifts to get it working.

The girls’ team then had to switch out their arm for similar reasons.

Competition judge Justin Smith, the operational technology services manager for Atlantic Explorer, said those types of difficulties were common for engineers at sea.

“It’s normal for us to be dealing with balky robots and instruments while on the ship, so this gives the students a very real look at marine engineering,” he said.

Mr Lowe added: “There were many, many challenges and I was so proud of the kids. They kept calm and overcame the situation.

“I could not believe the problems that we were having — problem after problem after problem — but the determination of the kids ... they just stuck to it and they were not going to be defeated by anything.”

As a design and technology teacher, Mr Lowe regularly witnesses lightbulb moments in his classroom.

“This class is all about problem solving and this type of hands-on learning experience gives students a chance to get immediate results and allows them to feel a sense of accomplishment,” he said.

“When they see all the tools, the different noises and smells and the environment of the classroom, it really excites them.

“If you have an interest you’re definitely going to delve into it more, so I try to make my class as fun as possible. I even tell my students, you will have more fun in this class than you will in any other class — you won’t even know that you are learning.”

Mr Lowe has been a teacher for more than 12 years. He took an interest in industrial design after winning a scholarship to art and design school in Columbus, Ohio.

He said the subject typically attracted boys, but of the school’s four teams he has made an effort to include an all-girls team for both years.

“There seems to be a stigma that this area is not for girls,” he said. “I would like to show that women can excel in this area.”

He blames history. The class’s wood shop roots attract “more hands-on, labour-type workers”, he said.

“I want to change that stigma that says it is for the child that struggles with academics,” he added. “It gives value to the theoretical subjects, such as maths and science.

“When kids put those skills into practice, it makes more sense to them. All the theory, all the knowledge is fine but what really makes an impact is what you can do with that knowledge.

“I see so many light bulbs go off with this project, especially when we get to technical drawing. Kids realise what fractions are — that they are just part of a whole — and when they see it, it makes more sense.”

Mr Lowe is one of many educators putting an emphasis on Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects.

“I’m overjoyed to see projects like this,” he said. “Not only Stem comes into play, it’s teamwork, it’s social skills. Everything came into play with this project.”

Mr Lowe’s two-year-old son, Ethan, has reinforced his teaching methods.

“I look at my son grow and realise that everything he’s learnt is based around play and having fun,” he said. “My question is, why do we stop this as we grow older? As teachers we have to find ways to make it fun. “There’s a quote on the BIOS website that says, ‘The difference between science and goofing around is writing it down’. That’s so fitting.

“I really wanted the kids to realise not what design and technology is, but what it can be and the career opportunities that come out of it — product design, furniture design, civil engineering, the list goes on and on.

“I really want to thank BIOS and Kaitlyn Baird [programme co-ordinator] for this initiative. It’s really done wonders for the students.

“This area may not be for every kid, but my job is to find the kid that it is for and stretch them and expose them as much as I can.”