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Young Scientists Make a Splash at Inclusive Innovation Week

April 12, 2017

By Chris Maggio

On a Friday afternoon, while many adults were playing hooky to watch the Pirates’ home opener, eight girls showed off the result of a school year’s worth of work.

“It took a lot of time and frustration and determination to do this,” Desirae Nance said to two passersby that she had fearlessly flagged down. They stood in the lobby of Nova Place, the former Allegheny Center Mall turned tech hub. Nance referred to the creation of a SeaPerch, a remotely operated underwater vehicle (ROV). It was made from PVC pipes, three motors, pool noodles, a control box, and a 12-volt battery.

One of Nance’s teammates, Denia Henderson, used a remote control connected to the SeaPerch to sink it into a small plastic tub of water. Henderson propelled it forward. Then backwards. Then upward. It broke the surface with a splash. She and the crowd giggled.

Nance and Henderson were two members of Lil Scientists, one of two teams of seventh and eighth-grade girls from Manchester Academic Charter School. The other was the Aqua-Bots. Each team designed its own unique SeaPerch.

Their presentations came a day before the SeaPerch Regional Competition at California University of Pennsylvania. There, the SeaPerches swam through rings and transferred rings to underwater spokes. For every ring passed through and every ring transferred, a point was earned. The competition also judged teams’ respective engineering notes.

Winning teams will compete at the national competition in Atlanta, Georgia. The Office of Naval Research sponsors the program and the competitions to expose students to robotics careers in the Navy.

Dr. Andre Samuel judged the SeaPerch competition one year. He also directs The Citizen Science Lab, Pittsburgh’s first and only community life sciences laboratory. It promotes STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, math) education and is open to all.

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Samuel was hoping to bring SeaPerch to the lab when it recently created an initiative to expose more African-American girls to robotics and engineering. He next needed to recruit from schools. Manchester Academic obliged, as did four others. With the help of a grant through the Heinz Endowments, the lab sponsored seven all-girl teams totaling 26 girls.

These girls worked hard, as the ones from Manchester Academic were happy to tell anyone willing to listen Friday. Once a week for 13 weeks, they were bused to the lab at 1345 Bedford Ave. in the Hill District. They learned how to solder, strip and cut wire, and put circuit boards together, taking detailed notes as they did so. They tested their completed SeaPerches at the PNC YMCA.

Lil Scientists, the Aqua-Bots, and three other teams went to the regionals, where they won an award for best team spirit. Although none qualified for the national competition, all seven teams who participated in the program will be going to it anyway, so important was it to Samuel that these girls be exposed to engineering and science.

The experience wasn’t without its setbacks. During a January school break, mold infested the Aqua-Bots’ SeaPerch’s motors, ruining them. But the team persevered. Caranina Koloshinsky, the science and robotics teacher at Manchester Academic, went with the girls to the lab after school every week and saw their determination firsthand.

“Perseverance is always important,” Koloshinsky said. She added, “I think it’s important getting children exposed to all the engineering and science careers available.”

Lil Scientists' SeaPerch out of water.

Lil Scientists’ SeaPerch out of water.

Destany Best, of the Aqua-Bots, always thought she wanted to be a chemical engineer. But then she saw how broad engineering was. “It helped my perspective,” she said.

The event, one of a few student presentations at Nova Place, was part of Inclusive Innovation Week, organized by Pittsburgh and the Urban Redevelopment Authority. The week was about making Pittsburgh’s burgeoning, innovative fields accessible to everyone. It included numerous events and partnerships. The SeaPerch presentation was a collaboration between Comcast, The Buhl Foundation, and Manchester Academic.

The student projects showcased at Nova Place this week are examples of how Inclusive Innovation Week helps fulfill the Buhl Foundation’s mission, encouraging people to dream, to innovate, and to take action,” Diana Bucco, President of the Buhl Foundation, said.  

“We’re proud and honored to be able to support these digital partnerships.”