Let's say I'm out on my yacht, the Mal de Mer, and my Rolex slips off my wrist and sinks into the briny deep.
I know what you're thinking. On a reporter's salary, I can just buy a new Rolex. But I don't have to do that, because I can just call my young friends from the Excelsior Homeschool Cooperative and have them deploy their prizewinning underwater vehicle, Poseidon, to retrieve it.
Allentown region that meet each week at a couple of area churches to work together on academic disciplines.
Among these young scholars is a born tinkerer from Lower Macungie Township named David Sampsell. He is 16 years old. I have written before about the disconcerting experience of interviewing people who are not only much younger than me but much smarter than me. I recognized David as a member of that tribe right away, based on the fact that he has designed and built what is essentially a deep-sea diving robot, and I have not.
The story began a couple of years ago when David read a book called "Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea." It tells the story of Tommy Thompson, an eccentric engineer who used devices called ROVs, for remotely operated vehicles, to find and recover hundreds of millions of dollars in treasure from a shipwreck off the coast of the Carolinas.
"I read that book and then I thought 'Hey, I'll look up ROVs on the Internet,' " David told me. "I found a site where a guy had built his own."
Following the online instructions, David built a simple ROV. Then he learned about an annual ROV competition at Villanova University sponsored by the Marine Advanced Technology Education Center in Monterey, Calif., known as MATE.
"Last summer I thought maybe we could do this, get a group together [from the cooperative] and build one for the competition," he said.
The team, called "pROVe" for Pennsylvania ROV Engineers, came together pretty quickly: David and his sister Natalie; Micah and Hannah Smith; Tim and Stephen Gahman; Matthew and Thomas Buonanno.
This year's competition theme was "World War II Shipwrecks." The team had to design and build a ROV capable of inspecting such wrecks — which have been rusting on the seabed for more than six decades — for ocean-contaminating oil leaks.
They started construction in January, with David Sampsell and Matt Buonanno — who are in 10th and 11th grade, respectively — using computer-aided design software to create three-dimensional blueprint models.
"It was a really valuable experience because it was practical experience with engineering," said team member Micah Smith of Lower Macungie, an 11th-grader. "Rather than reading a book and doing a math problem, you're seeing engineering on a practical level."
I don't want to get too technical here, because I can't, but the robot consists of a PVC frame and a fiberglass-insulated pressure housing containing all the electronics and gears that run the propellers and other elements.
This housing is a point of pride for pROVe, because while most of the other teams at the competition in May used store-bought waterproof boxes, the team designed its own, with a Plexiglas dome so you can see the innards.
The ROV had to complete a series of missions involving a simulated shipwreck site. The team also had to present a 20-page technical report on the construction, create a poster display, make a presentation to a panel of judges, and design a team T-shirt.
The outcome? First place for the technical report, third place for the poster display and a "Sharkpedo" award for innovative and creative design.
Not bad for a maiden voyage. The project bore even richer fruit, said Micah's 14-year-old sister, Hannah, who helped designed the poster and T-shirts.
"As we worked, the team grew closer," she said. "We formed good friendships."
This week, the friends are taking Poseidon to Orlando, Fla., for MATE's international competition, where they will compete against teams from around the world beginning Friday. I'll let you know in a future column how they fared.
IN THE BURBS
Underwater, the work of many hands
Home school team scores at competition with underwater vehicle
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