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Students get submerged in STEM education through the MATE competition

Sixteen Texas teams had the opportunity to show off their robotic projects in Johnson Space Center’s Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory.
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Sixteen Texas teams had the opportunity to show off their robotic projects in Johnson Space Center’s Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory.
All that is marine is not just dolphins and boats, as demonstrated by the students who took part in a Marine Advanced Technology Education (MATE) Texas Regional Competition on April 14. Rather than the ocean was the backdrop of Johnson Space Center’s Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL), a monstrous pool that holds 6.2 million gallons of water and ordinarily simulates weightless conditions for the space program.

Organized by the MATE Center in Monterrey, Calif., the competition encourages students at the middle school, high school and college level to take interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers in the marine sciences/marine technology fields.

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A robotic vehicle sets out to complete its list of tasks for the MATE Texas Regional Competition.
“Student teams build robots that are operated underwater and have to complete specific tasks that emulate real-world tasks for remotely operated vehicles (ROVs),” said Lisa Spence,lead, Guest Operations and Protocol at JSC. “But the really cool thing about this competition is that building a robot to operate underwater requires many of the same skills and knowledge base as building a robot for any other application. So it really is all about getting students interested and engaged in STEM.”

A total of 16 teams from 13 different schools in Texas participated, coming from as far away as Corpus Christi, San Antonio and Killeen.

One student controls the remotely operated vehicle at a poolside makeshift mission control station.
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One student controls the remotely operated vehicle at a poolside makeshift mission control station.
The winning teams, Waltrip High School and Nimitz High School, hail from Houston. Groups from the University of Houston and Texas A&M University also exhibited their ROV’s capabilities in the cool NBL water. Those four teams will continue on and test their vehicles at the International ROV Competition from June 21 to 23 in Orlando, Fla. There they will compete against groups from all over the United States, Canada, Hong Kong, Russia and Scotland, to name a few.

In addition to the the personal pride each team has in developing their robotic babies, MATE offers kids the chance to hobnob with professionals involved in their fields of study.

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A student releases his team’s remotely operated vehicle into the pool.
“Students benefit in so many ways,” Spence said. “First and foremost, they spend several months learning about STEM topics ranging from electrical power to buoyancy. They get to apply their knowledge and develop skills in building and testing their vehicles prior to the competition. At the competition itself, they get a unique opportunity to demonstrate their vehicles in a world-class facility—the NBL. (There), they have time to interact with the judges, many of whom are engineers and scientists who work for the NASA community.”

Water and robotics may seem like an uncommon mix, but this combination is helping Texas students navigate toward their future dream careers—one submersion at a time.


Catherine Ragin Williams
Johnson Space Center, Houston
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