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Middle Schoolers help build, design underwater robot

The box-shaped, motor-propelled robot scuttled across the floor of Buck Creek, with Valleywood Middle School eighth grader Amaya Eggleston controlling it via remote.

“That’s so cool!” said Amaya, who helped build the marine ‘bot with classmates Ajla Lelek, Sarah Vokoviak and Sumayah Hanson and teacher Bobbijo Zoerhof.

The robot took its first dip on a recent afternoon. It will play a significant role in an eighth-grade community project, a year-long environmental study of the creek and its levels of pollutants. Teachers and students are working on the project with funding help from Groundswell, a coalition of community partners creating opportunities for hands-on environmental learning.

Sumayah Hanson controls the underwater robot

The robot is powered by three motors and equipped with a camera that shows images of the creek floor onto a fish-finder screen. The girls are using a 3D printer to make sensor boxes and tube endings. While they are still tweaking and tinkering, the robot can already move through the creek and record underwater images on its camera.

The robot will soon be used to test the water for phosphates, nitrates, turbidity, pH level and temperature. Social studies teacher Bobbijo Zoerhof and English teacher Jane Van Hof have classes assigned with studying and recording levels throughout the year, which they expect could vary due to water runoff. They will present findings to neighbors and post readings on a website.

“I love making this stuff with my team,” Amaya said. “It’s exciting to know we can help more than ourselves just doing this. I hope it helps people — the students at our school — to know what our water’s like.”

The project is cross-curricular, involving reading and writing in English Language Arts and mapping a region and environmental laws in social studies.

Students read the book “A Long Walk to Water”, about an 11-year-old African girl who regularly walks eight hours to fetch water from a pond.

Valleywood students correlated the story to the mapping of fresh water, and also the robot with water quality testing. In social studies, they focus on how humans interact with their environment.

“The robot connects with fresh, healthy water, where to locate the water and how to keep the water supply healthy,” Zoerhof said.

The underwater robot includes motors, a tether, fishfinder and camera

 Multifaceted Outdoor Learning

Zoerhof and VanHof partnered with Groundswell, which is housed in the College of Education at Grand Valley State University, by attending an outdoor learning session in October at Garfield Park.

Zoerhof said she learned about remote operated vehicles from a workshop years ago, and came up with the idea to use one to collect water samples. The girls will head to the creek several times this school year to control the robot as it gathers samples. This eliminates the need for students to gather icy samples themselves.

The robot will collect water samples over the course of the school year

“We thought, ‘Why don’t we use the robot to test the water year round instead of having a student do it? Plus, with the camera, it can see to the depth that we can’t,”  Zoerhof said.

Before the robot began its submarine-like mission, students this fall mapped the schoolyard, sketching and with Google Maps to analyze water runoff patterns and natural features of the landscape. They will also plant a native nursery, also funded by Groundswell, on the creek’s edges and study whether the plants impact pollutant levels.

Zoerhof chose the girls to work with the robot because of their interest, both in STEM-related learning and the outdoors. The girls have also worked with 3D printing.

“I hope we can show all the pollution that’s in there and people will help clean it and get rid of what causes more pollution,” said Ajla.

Added Sara: “It’s a big privilege to know you are a part of something that can make things better.”

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers and On-the-Town Magazine. She has been covering the many exciting facets of K-12 public education for School News Network since 2013. Read Erin's full bio or email Erin.

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