The two busloads of seventh- and eighth-graders from Sterling who arrived at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Bethesda on May 6 were on a mission. They had come to test the underwater robots they built and to see which teams could maneuver their robots most effectively in a simulated oil-spill scenario.

The seventh-graders from Seneca Ridge Middle School and eighth-graders from Our Lady of Hope School were the first school groups from Loudoun to participate in SeaPerch, a Naval outreach program designed to spur student interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). The program teaches students to use low-cost materials to create remotely operated vehicles that can perform basic underwater tasks.

Toby Ratcliffe, educational outreach coordinator for the naval center, said that half of the Navy’s scientists are eligible to retire within the next 10 years, so it is essential to create a pipeline to fill those positions.

“Research shows that you have to start at the elementary-school level to get kids excited,” Ratcliffe said. “They can then make choices about which classes to take to pursue their career goals.” She said the Navy is trying to attract students who have never had an interest in math and science.

After the Loudoun students arrived at the Bethesda campus, Ratcliffe outlined the day’s schedule. First, officials checked how the robots worked out of water. The robots were then tested underwater to make sure they could move back and forth, left and right, and up and down.

The goal was to maneuver the robots in a water tank to catch ping-pong balls in netting and push them across a finish line. The exercise was designed to simulate a mission to recover oil from the water, such as in th 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

The students worked in small groups and earned points for each ping-pong ball they pushed across the finish line.

Afterward, Ratcliffe told the students that engineers seldom get everything right the first time and that they have to keep testing the robots to make improvements. She asked the students what improvements they would make. Several offered suggestions: Add an upper propeller; add a lever on the control box; have the motors operate at different speeds; and put netting on both the front and the back of the robot.

Ratcliffe then reminded students of the challenge engineers faced in capping the underwater well and recovering the spilled oil in the Gulf of Mexico.

“People asked why it’s taking so long,” she said. “Now we know. It’s hard. It’s really, really hard to get oil off the bottom.”

Steve Russell and his son Matthew, 17, a junior at Dominion High School, brought SeaPerch to Loudoun in the fall. Russell, who works on STEM outreach programs for the Office of Naval Research, introduced the program at Our Lady of Hope in November. SeaPerch is now part of the school’s eighth-grade science curriculum.

After Matthew completed a summer internship at the Naval Surface Warfare Center last year, he wanted to see whether he could interest teachers at Seneca Ridge Middle School in the program. In September, he demonstrated the project to science teachers, and Rick Peck, faculty sponsor of the school’s Explorers Club, agreed to take it on as a club. Matthew, who hopes to study mechanical engineering at Virginia Tech, volunteers after school at the club’s weekly meetings to help members with their robots.

Peck said that it can be a challenge to keep middle-school students focused on after-school activities. But SeaPerch has an “amazing” hold on their attention, he said.

Jane Meyerhofer, a science teacher at Our Lady of Hope, agreed that SeaPerch had a special appeal. “This, they liked,” she said. “They would have done it every single day.”

Meyerhofer was impressed at the number of things the students learned to do, including soldering, working with motors, wiring and troubleshooting problems. Soldering requires a great deal of patience and precision, she said, and some students proved to be very adept at it.

“One of the things that was very educational was that some of the things took a long time, even if they looked very simple,” Meyerhofer said. “That’s an important life lesson.”