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Mon Valley YMCA program offers a chance for underwater adventure

| Saturday, Feb. 1, 2014, 5:59 p.m.

Students will use their imaginations to transform household objects, such as plastic pipes and wire ties, into underwater robots in a new Mon Valley YMCA program.

The Mon Valley YMCA in Monongahela will this month debut a “SeaPerch” program, marketed to children in grades six through 12, said Vanessa Ewt, the YMCA's youth and teen intern who is leading the effort.

Students can move the robots with remote controls, adapting motions based upon the task they'd like the device to complete, such as “collecting rings, doing surveillance underwater,” Ewt said. They'll try out their robotic creations in the YMCA's swimming pool.

The YMCA is partnering with California University of Pennsylvania to host the activity, and it's designed to enhance students' skills in “STEM,” the disciplines of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The initiative is sponsored by the United States Office of Naval Research.

“The Navy is the whole sponsor behind this because they noticed that we have all these jobs for engineering but no one to fill them,” Ewt said. “To train younger students to get them involved in STEM activities and get them interested in a fun way and hopefully that will lead them to go into that career.”

Ewt, a CalU student, built robots for competitions during her time at Ligonier Valley School District and the Eastern Westmoreland Career and Technology Center.

After hearing about the SeaPerch program, CalU employee Mike Amrhein suggested the idea to Ewt. Amrhein said collaboration is part of his job as director of the university's Office of Integration and Outreach for Technology, Engineering, Art, Math and Science.

“I facilitate those kinds of relationships,” he said. “The university's totally committed to being a community partner, not just a place where kids go to get a degree.”

The program engages students in “hands-on, minds-on” learning, he said. Those types of experiences can help pique a student's interest in STEM careers.

“The young learners who participate in building the SeaPerch robot will gain knowledge and background in things like buoyancy and measuring, design of remote-operated vehicles,” Amrhein said. “They also do electric circuit operations and soldering and actually build the robots and use them underwater.”

Each SeaPerch robot is about the size of a computer monitor screen.

Students drill and solder the pieces together.

About 17 interested students attended a SeaPerch open house in January at the YMCA. The program will run for about eight weeks, and it costs $15 per student. Students do not need to be YMCA members to participate.

The program will begin Feb. 13 and will continue weekly on Thursdays.

Ewt said she hopes to continue the program in the future.

She encourages students to participate because there are no similar activities in the area with a STEM basis.

“Hopefully if the success of this program goes well, we can continue to not only do this program again but maybe continue into other STEM activities that are maybe possibly for younger kids,” she said.

Amrhein wants to grow the program across the region. If schools incorporated the program, he said, CalU could host a SeaPerch event at one of the university's swimming pools.

“Ultimately our goal is to have enough of the programs in the region so that CalU could then host a regional competition,” he said. “We'd love to do that.”

Rossilynne Skena Culgan is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-836-6646 or