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Robotics made simple for young scientists

Foshay students learn a lesson in ocean science

young scientists learn buoyancy
Students create plankton-like structures to study buoyancy. (Photo/D.J. Kast)

At his playground, fourth-grader Leonel Aquino ditched the jungle gym to construct an underwater remotely operated vehicle — or ROV — from polyvinyl chloride pipe.

“This is like making Legos but bigger,” said Aquino, who was following a schematic illustration showing him how the pipes should fit together. “It’s scientific and fun.”

Once assembled, the ROV would be attached to a remote-controlled robotic arm and dropped into a nearby above-ground pool where Aquino and his classmates would observe how the structure’s aerodynamics respond to being moved around in the water. Students would also try to pick up objects in the water such as small, orange construction cones.

Aquino was participating in a studio recently held by the Joint Educational Project’s Young Scientist Program (YSP), based at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Scientists. The playground at the James A. Foshay Learning Center near USC was transformed into a science laboratory.

Surrounding the jungle gym, stations with names such as “ROV Building,” “Plankton Races,” “Marshmallow Mash” and “Cartesian Divers” invited Foshay’s fourth- and fifth-graders to learn about underwater scientific concepts such as pressure, volume and buoyancy.

The project teaches engineering concepts, problem-solving and teamwork, said D.J. Kast, YSP director, who organized the day’s robotics program. YSP is a partnership with five USC community schools in which undergraduates help promote science literacy to students and encourage careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) through hands-on scientific demonstrations.

“In scientific investigations, ROVs can be used to monitor and collect information underwater,” Kast noted.

“Our goal with this studio is to introduce the idea of underwater robotics in an engaging way and allow the students to explore a new STEM field,” he said. “Students get to see how fun disciplines like engineering can be and the real-life applications.”

The explorer within

The afternoon robotics studio at Foshay was made possible in part by ExplorOcean, a Newport Beach, Calif., organization that provided many of the scientific tools.

Wendy Marshall ’12, who earned her EdD from the USC Rossier School of Education, is director of education at ExplorOcean. “Our main objective is to develop the explorer within,” she said, noting that partnering with YSP was an ideal complement to ExplorOcean’s mission of teaching ocean literacy along with critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

At the Cartesian Divers station, students learned about pressure forces encountered by scuba divers.

“Is air lighter or heavier than water?” Andie Lichtman, a graduate student at USC Rossier, asked students.

“Lighter!” the students replied.

Lichtman directed them to test the theory. She gave students bottles filled with water and instructed them to place inside a small plastic toy squid with an air-filled pipette, then screw on the cap. When the children squeezed the bottle, the squid sank to the bottom.

“When you squeeze the bottle, you’re compressing the air in the pipette, which helps the squid to sink,” Lichtman said. “Think about when you’re in a pool where you have to let all of the air out of your lungs to sink,” she explained. “Otherwise you just float. Scuba divers wear weights to help them dive.”

Fourth-grader Kimberly Trinidad experimented by adding metal bolts to her toy squid to help it sink to the bottom of the bottle. Her favorite part of the project?

“Getting wet!” she said. “I like doing these kinds of activities where we’re trying out what we’re learning.”

Teaching tools

USC students also learned from the experience. Part of YSP’s mission is to provide valuable teaching and mentoring opportunities to undergraduate and graduate science majors, Kast said. The student assistants use their classrooms lessons as teaching tools.

“Teaching requires them to understand the fundamental principles of science in detail and clearly explain them to fourth- and fifth-graders,” Kast said. “They have the opportunity to lay a strong science foundation for these children.”

Olivia Clifford, a psychology major, has been working with Joint Educational Project and YSP for two years. She currently teaches at Norwood Street Elementary School in Los Angeles.

“One of my main focuses is developmental and child psychology, so being in a classroom and seeing firsthand how students learn and interact is really helpful,” Clifford said.

Clifford saw the activities as a way to enhance the science curriculum she and her peers teach in local elementary schools.

“Here, they see science visually versus just reading it from a text book,” she said. “Today puts it all together. This studio outside gives them a whole different experience than being in the classroom.”

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Robotics made simple for young scientists

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