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Robotics Contest Entices Va. Teens

By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 2, 2008

Selling high-schoolers on engineering careers -- and by natural extension, math and science courses -- can be as difficult as convincing them of the virtues of abstinence and not dancing too closely at the prom.

The preferred pro-engineering lobbying tactic employed last week in the Prince William County school system?

First: Unveil a countywide competition in underwater robotics to hundreds of students in a high school auditorium thumping with techno music. Then, talk up the salaries made by engineers -- and simultaneously joke that liberal arts degrees result only in fast-food jobs. Finally, show testosterone-churning photos and videos of naval attack aircraft, submarines and destroyers.

Recently at Forest Park Senior High School, hundreds of students listened to a presentation outlining an eight-week program in which they will design underwater robots. The curriculum culminates in a competition April 26 at George Mason University that will test which team of students designed the quickest and most agile robot.

The program, called Sea Perch and sponsored in part by the Office of Naval Research and the Society of Naval Architects and Engineers, is designed to teach students about such topics as propulsion, buoyancy and tool safety. The program marks a significant fundraising accomplishment for the Prince William school system and its education foundation, which partnered with numerous local companies, including Lockheed Martin and Micron Technology to raise about $36,000 for the program.

More than 500 students from nearly all of Prince William's high schools will participate initially, but the group will get winnowed to about 300 for the George Mason competition. School officials have also touted the program because it is aligned with the state's Standards of Learning exams.

The school system has for many years had a relationship with robotics. Robotics students at Battlefield High School in Gainesville, for example, have won state and national awards and are the subject of a recent documentary produced by the Kennedy Center, according to the school's Web site.

During last week's presentation at Forest Park, students heard repeatedly why engineering jobs in the military or for defense contractors are cool, and why increasing global competition means it's important that more students enter the field.

"I'm not trying to sell you on military service," said Rear Adm. Kevin M. McCoy, the chief engineer of the Naval Systems Engineering Directorate of Naval Sea Systems Command. Then, McCoy showed a photograph of a new destroyer. "Anyone want to go in the Marines? You'll be comforted to know we have one of these offshore. Does that look pretty neat? It's all composite. None of that's steel."

Then, he showed another photograph of a combat ship. "How does that look?"

"It looks cool!" a student shouted from his seat.

Eventually, Duane Mason, a systems engineer for SAIC, explained how the contest would work. He said robots would compete in three games in a pool. In the first game, the robots race through a series of gates. The second game requires the robots to recover rings and put them in buckets. The third game? A surprise.

Mason ended his presentation with an off-handed remark that could be appreciated by even the most robotic of teenagers:

"It's harder than it looks," he said.

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