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Tacoma Students Create Robots to Monitor Puget Sound

During Tacoma Public Schools January mini-term, students at the Science and Math Institute (SAMi), School of the Arts (SOTA), and Industrial Design Engineering and Art (IDEA) choose one class from a variety of exciting, hands-on courses to deep-dive into all month long. You’ll see students enthusiastic and eager to learn on any given day.

One class, “Robots in the community”, offered students the opportunity to use underwater robots to support SAMi’s Metro Parks Partner, earn Career and Technical Education credit, and earn OSHA 10 certification.

Robots in the Community

On a rainy afternoon in late January, 44 students from the mini-term class “Robots in the Community” gathered around one of Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium’s seal and sea lion pools. The cold and wet weather didn’t bother them personally; there were more significant concerns.

“We need to get Dav undercover,” said sophomore Bianca Hanson.

Dav, as he is affectionately known, is the name Hanson and her teammates Oona Lacey, Posy Cobb, Jacob Sharon, and Anders Bergholm gave the intricate robot crane the team created from an old wheelchair, rope, wood, foam, and electrical wiring.

Dav’s job is to lower remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) into the water. He is one-of-a-kind among his robot peers.

“The other ROVs go into the water and do underwater photography,” explained Hanson.

Nearby, another student exclaimed, “We have a sonar ping, Mr. Beard!”

SAMi teacher Alexis Beard gathered around an above-water monitor.

“If the sonar pings, we know we’re near an object,” he explained. “In this case, we’re near the wall of the sea lion habitat.”

With the seals and sea lions safe in their behind-the-scenes pools, the students practiced piloting their ROVs. The underwater cameras caught the marine animals curiously watching behind a glass barrier.

“I am so proud of all these students,” said Beard. “Some have taken robotics before, and this is the first time for others. They have taken a concept and made it into a functioning robot.”

Metro Parks Tacoma Collaboration

Robotics in the Community serves a greater purpose than just being a fun class. It also aims to help monitor the local marine environment.

“These students are community scientists, helping us learn more about Puget Sound,” said Molly Edison, the zoo’s SAMi partnership coordinator. “I love getting to collaborate with SAMi’s amazing teachers and students to accomplish our shared goals in caring for the Sound.”

In January, the class dropped their ROVs into Puget Sound at the Point Defiance Marina.

The ROVs looked at the pilings under the marina and gave 4k imagery to Metro Parks Tacoma and provided video of the biodiversity in the Sound.  In return, the students received piloting practice and feedback on their ROVs.

“Our longstanding partnership with Tacoma Public Schools means so much to us,” said Edison. “It is special to share space with SAMi and watch the students experience all the zoo has to offer. We get to watch our future conservationists learn and grow every day.”


Now that the mini-term is over, the students will continue preparing for the 2024 Marine Advanced Technology Education (MATE) underwater robotics competition at the King County Aquatic Center in May. The competition focuses on protecting and restoring marine ecosystems and biodiversity, and students are tasked to design and build ROVs and the necessary sensors, tooling, and complementary technologies to monitor the health of aquatic habitats.

“Many of our students have left the program inspired and go on to have successful engineering careers,” said Beard. “It is invigorating to be a part of such a dedicated program, and we are so grateful for our community and partners who make it possible.”

Beard says even long after the competition ends, students carry their robotics experience with them. According to MATE, 81 percent of students are more interested in a STEM career after competing.

“We are delighted to see students developing a passion and connection to nature in our zoo and parks,” said the zoo’s director, Alan Varsik. “These students will take these learning experiences into whatever career they pursue and help advance to a brighter future for our planet.”