SPS wins state STEM grant

Published 9:58 pm Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Suffolk Public Schools will receive a $10,000 state competitive grant to expand its student engineering competition — the Sea, Air, Land Challenge.

The Virginia Department of Education’s STEM grant funding was available to schools in which 40 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch. The purpose of the STEM Competition Team Grant Initiative is to increase awareness of careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics among teachers and students through STEM-related, problem and project-based, team-building activities.

For two years, Suffolk Public Schools has the host division for the Sea, Air, Land Challenge for middle and high school students. It is a program in which teams of middle and high school students design and build robotic vehicles and payloads to compete in underwater, air or land courses.

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Each participating school forms teams of interested students, which then have 12 to 16 weeks to design an unmanned vehicle to perform surveillance and payload reconnaissance missions in the challenge of their choice.

The student-designed robotic systems compete in challenges that mimic missions encountered by the military, national security agencies and first responders. Each team is paired with an industry mentor to guide them through the design and build process.

The SeAL Challenge has three objectives:

  • To provide middle and high school students with the opportunity to solve an engineering challenge within the constraints of time, project specifications and budget.
  • To provide students with an awareness of technical careers that utilize robotics in the Department of Defense, armed forces and with first responders.
  • To offer schools a STEM competition that is free and focuses on ingenuity, creativity and collaboration.

The SeAL Challenge is offered to students as a club or after-school activity. As the host division of the challenge, Suffolk collaborates with Penn State University in offering this event to other interested divisions in Virginia. There is no registration cost for schools to participate.

Col. Fred Cherry Middle School hosted the competition in May, with 14 schools competing, including five Suffolk high schools and middle schools — Lakeland and King’s Fork high schools, along with John F. Kennedy, Forest Glen and Col. Fred Cherry middle schools.

The SeAL Challenge was developed by the Penn State Electro-Optics Center and sponsored by the Office of Naval Research, and Virginia is the third state to host the event along with Pennsylvania and Ohio.

In the competition, students complete a survey indicating their knowledge and feelings on the robotics and engineering process. Teams are provided documents that specify challenge requirements. After that, the teams research robotic solutions and plan a design, using a $500 budget.

Each team is required to submit a preliminary design and receive feedback. Once the feedback has been returned, teams may begin ordering parts and building their robotic system. As the teams research and build, they consult with industry mentors. In addition to providing support on the design and build of the robotic system, these mentors provide insight to the students on the academic paths that led to their career choice as well as lesser known career opportunities.

On the challenge day, teams have two chances to complete tasks in the selected course, and they are judged on accuracy, ability to maneuver and time to complete tasks during each of the runs. After an initial course attempt, teams make adjustments to their robotic systems to improve their performance.

The SeAL Challenge awards one team at each level for each of the challenge areas (sea, air, and land). Additionally, one team is awarded for their creativity and one team is awarded for their improvement between the morning and afternoon runs.

The focus of the challenge is not on winning but rather on the journey and the exposure to STEM careers and experiences. Students complete a post-survey to share knowledge and feelings on the robotics and engineering process after participating in the SeAL Challenge.