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High school students at robotics competition finding out if Coast Guard life floats their boat

By Johanna Somers

Publication: theday.com

Published July 16. 2014 5:27PM   Updated July 17. 2014 12:01AM
Tim Cook/The Day
From left, Brittany Munson, Michael Tormey and Ryan Harding work on their remote-controlled water craft.
Teams must devise radio-controlled craft while getting introduction to military ways

New London — In the midst of 6 a.m. wake-up calls, eight-minute showers and all-you-can-eat meals, roughly 180 high school students are building radio-controlled vessels during one week at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy.

The program, Coast Guard Academy Robotics on Water, aims to teach students how to strategically build ships that can complete mock Coast Guard missions ranging from rescuing survivors, cleaning up oil spills and capturing terrorists or drug runners. The vessel that can complete the most tasks in a pond-like structure Friday wins the competition.

“We should probably call it the Titanic at this point,” said Mike Tormey of Bangor, Maine.

Bravo Division One, a team of about five students, was on its second day of trying to build a radio-controlled floating robotic craft at the academy Wednesday. The students were given a box with materials such as Styrofoam, scrap metal, screws, propellers, gears and motors on Tuesday and had to use engineering, problem-solving and teamwork skills to create their vessel. Their group was aiming to break up ice, anchor buoys and capture and jail terrorists in the 10-foot-by-10-foot, water-filled competition arena.

The 180 students are just one group of about 550 high school students from all over the country who will get to take advantage of the weeklong military service and engineering program at the academy. The academy holds three weeklong programs each summer. Capt. Jonathan Russell, who heads the engineering department and is the dean of engineering, said the program gives students a chance to learn about engineering and the Coast Guard while at the same time giving the Coast Guard a chance to observe future cadet candidates.

“We take notes and say, here is somebody that is really good at and interested in engineering, and if a year later that person applies to the academy and says, I want to be an engineer, it adds credibility to that,” Russell said. “If there was somebody who hated the engineering thing and then refused to participate and then later on, a year later, says I want to be an engineer … really?”

Delta Division Four, a team of about six students, gave mixed reviews of the weeklong program and their interest in the academy.

“It’s always been a dream of mine, serving in the military — by Friday I will know if I want to continue this lifestyle,” said Michelle Migut of South River, N.J.

The lifestyle the students were talking about included having one minute to get up, make their beds, get dressed and stand at attention in the hallway; eight minutes to get all 21 members of their company through the showers; and penalties for running late that included curl-ups, planks and squat jumps.

There is also a lot of yelling, group members said.

If someone goes to the bathroom between 3 and 5 a.m., when they are not supposed to be in the hallways, he or she gets yelled at, group members said.

Some students said they thrived in the environment.

“I like it when they yell at me,” said Taylor Mccloskey of Egg Harbor, N.J. “I have just always wanted to be in the military. I like helping the company instead of being the anchor, dragging the group down.”

Christian Park of Fairfax, Va., said his stepmother has been “pushing” him to join a military service academy and thought this week would give him a taste of the academy.

“Right now, it’s beaten out of me,” Park said. “I have low hopes for this craft at the moment. We re-started a lot; everything is spontaneous ideas and there is not enough time to think of a good idea.”

The group, Delta Division Four, had attempted to complete all of the possible Coast Guard missions during the competition despite being advised that it was basically impossible to do so. Therefore, their vessel was weighed down and moved too slowly, members said. So they were cutting down the size of the Styrofoam boat, adding more gears to increase the speed of the propellers and adding metal “arms” and a plastic basket to pick up balls that represented terrorists, survivors or oil.

The task involving the capture of a terrorist was one of the most difficult. The students’ radio-controlled boat must travel in a pond to a seesaw-like metal track with a small black ball rolling back and forth. The boat must capture the ball and then dump it into a container under water that is referred to as the jail.

“It’s been a challenge,” Migut said. “We all have to work together and this is the only time we have.”

Although each division has been working independently of one another, each division will be paired with another division on the day of competition. The two different divisions will have to determine how they can complete the highest number of tasks in the pond together to win the competition.

“So they design their boat sort of in a vacuum as a single team, but then we put two of them in the pond at a time and say now you have to work together,” Russell said. “They say: ‘Wait a second, we didn’t talk to them, we don’t know what they are good at.’ Figure it out.”

Teamwork is required in real-world national emergencies, such as when the Coast Guard responded to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, he said.

“The Coast Guard is known for teamwork,” Russell said.

The competition, from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. Friday at Billard Hall at the academy, is open to the public. Another competition for the third group of students will be July 25.


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