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MIT Sea Grant holds Sea Perch Institute Challenge

More than 300 middle and high school students build vehicles to address a simulated deep-water oil spill
Students work on a Sea Perch ROV poolside
Students work on a Sea Perch ROV poolside
Photo courtesy of MIT Sea Grant/Judith Pederson

On May 6, MIT’s Sea Grant College hosted the Sea Perch Institute Challenge at the Zesiger Athletic Center pool. More than 300 middle and high school students worked in teams to analyze and remediate a simulated deep-water oil spill resulting from a blowout using remotely operated underwater “Sea Perch” vehicles they built themselves.

What is a Sea Perch?

The Sea Perch is a simple, underwater, remotely operated vehicle made from PVC pipe and other inexpensive, readily available materials. The Sea Perch Program, created by the MIT Sea Grant College in 2003, trains educators across the United States and around the world to build the Sea Perch. Teachers then work with students to build their own customized Sea Perches and deploy them on research missions such as water-quality testing. The hands-on Sea Perch experience is a gateway to further study and careers in robotics, engineering, marine sciences and more. Sea Perch has been implemented by more than 300 teachers in 16 states and internationally. Sea Perch receives major support from the Office of Naval Research.

About the Sea Perch Institute

The Sea Perch Institute is a multi-year program that works with veteran Sea Perch schools to build on the basic Sea Perch course with a more advanced and multidisciplinary curriculum. To be selected for the program, schools are required to demonstrate support from school administration and the involvement of multiple teachers and classrooms.

For the 2010-11 academic year, MIT Sea Grant worked with Stoneham High School in Stoneham, Mass.; Dexter and Southfield Schools in Brookline, Mass.; Rogers High School in Newport, R.I.; and Swampscott Middle School in Swampscott, Mass. For these schools, MIT Sea Grant provided monthly classroom visits, mentoring, professional development opportunities and cost sharing of supplies and materials, as well as opportunities to bring students to MIT to tour labs and test vehicles. The students spent the year engaged in hands-on learning through simulated engineering experiences in marine robotics. The Sea Perch Institute was developed and implemented by MIT Sea Grant, and is also sponsored by the Office of Naval Research.

The Sea Perch Institute Challenge 2011

For the May 6 event, students were asked to analyze and resolve a deep-water blowout and oil spill using Sea Perch vehicles they built and modified themselves. Teams from the four SPI schools worked together to identify an appropriate plan of action, and to find the engineering solutions and collaborations that would give them the best chance of resolving the simulated disaster. Schools were asked to pool resources and share their strategies —the simulated oil spill, just like a real disaster, was too big of a problem for any one team to handle on its own.

On the morning of the event, more than 300 students arrived with their Sea Perches and went to work. Teams from Rogers High School and Swampscott Middle School used their vehicles to lay a “containment boom” — a line of foam noodles — that limited the spread of surface contaminants. Students from Stoneham High School used temperature sensors on the Sea Perch to map the extent of the spill, while another team from Rogers High School set up undersea sensing equipment. Teams from Dexter and Southfield high schools used Sea Perch with cameras to send information to the other teams as they tried to maneuver and remove debris in the tangled and tricky underwater setting.

At the end of three hours, the students had amassed many successes. They'd contained the spill — an incredible feat of coordination and problem solving — and made cuts in the main blowout pipe. They'd assessed the damage and cleared away a lot of debris and attempted to cap the spill. They'd acted as a team. They had not stopped the flow, but the teams demonstrated solutions that could resolve the challenge.

“Science is about collaborating and working toward an important solution,” MIT Sea Grant researcher Mike Soroka said. "Along the way you may fail and you may succeed, but both the successes and the failures when added together, as long as lessons are learned from the failures, create progress."

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