Teddy Schwalm found himself nearly two-dozen feet underwater, trying to steer a mini submarine inside an enormous indoor pool. But the 15-year-old was having trouble keeping his feet on the pedals that powered the submarine, and he started to loose control of the contraption.
Sockets popped out of panels, an alarm started blaring, and rescue divers jumped in and hauled him back to the pool’s edge.
“Not a big deal,” said Rizwan Ramakdawala, who was supervising 25 students in a week-long competition to build human-powered subs. “We’ve haven’t had a problem for the first two runs, but it was bound to happen.”
Hundreds of high school and college students from across the globe are spending the week inside a giant facilty in Bethesda in a competition meant to encourage them to expand their engineering and science skills. And hoping to walk away with bragging rights as the winner of this week’s 13th International Submarine Races.
Teddy and Ramakdawala’s team — KIDS Team Nautilus — was one of 22 in the contest. Each team was required to design a submarine from scratch.
“The real challenge is bringing all these disciplines together in a design spiral,” said Retired Navy Capt. Charles Behrle, president of the Foundation for Underwater Research and Education, the nonprofit organization that holds the annual event.
Behrle said the competition gives students hands-on experience with engineering challenges that professionals encounter. Students have nine hours to compete for the best time as they try to correct any problems that arise.
“It’s essentially a drag race underwater,” said Ben Gingras, a 19-year-old junior at Virginia Tech studying aerospace engineering. Gingras is a part of team Virginia Tech HPS, which brought two submarines — the Phantom 6 and the Phantom 7 — to the event.
The orange Phantom 6 won an award in innovation previously, but the team plans to retire the 8-year-old, two-person-powered submarine after this competition, which ends Friday.
“Eight years and she hasn’t crossed the finished line,” said Ben Rothberg, a 20-year-old mechanical engineering junior from Virginia Tech who co-pilots Phantom 6.
Like Behrle, those involved in the event said they view it as an opportunity for students to bring together their knowledge of the science, technology, engineering and mathematics concepts taught in school through activities that are entertaining and that prepare them for careers.
“At least in my freshman year, in classes there weren’t a ton of engineering opportunities,” said Thomas Maulbeck, a 19-year-old materials science engineering freshman at Virginia Tech. Maulbeck said he enjoys being able to be on a design team for a submarine project as a freshman.
There’s another level of difficulty getting to the competition, Behrle said: Several U.S. and international teams must find sponsors to help pay for the supplies and development of their projects.
Getting support can be a challenge, participants said, and affect their projects’ quality.
In many cases, family members are part of the team. Ramakdawala’s son, Zaahid, also participates on Nautilus. Zaahid learned how to use Fiberglass for the material of the watercraft, among other skills.
“I learned so much that I never knew anything about,” said Giselle “Gigi” Leblanc, 9, of Waldorf, who is also on the team.
Teams set up portable gazebos outside the facility. On Tuesday, students walked around the compound as they hung up wet scuba suits before adjusting their submarines.
People inside the facility sat at a table along the 30,000-feet-long course and recorded submarine speeds with some of the several computers on the table.
Students who take part in the competition are often later recruited for engineering programs and internships at colleges and companies, organizers said, who added that they hope the event will help inspire other young students to stick with the sciences.
“The United States needs scientists and engineers,” Behrle said.