MATE Center ROV Competitions Build Excitement for Marine Tech Careers

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Jill Zande never has a problem finding officials for the Marine Advanced Technology Education (MATE) Center's competitions for remotely operated vehicles (ROVs).

For MATE's 12th Annual International ROV Competition on June 20 to 22 in Seattle, she has lots of volunteers from the Marine Technology Society (MTS) and dozens of corporate sponsors. Zande is the MATE Center's co-principal investigator, associate director, and competition coordinator.

"Our member response has been nothing short of outstanding. In fact the only complaint I have ever heard is when some of our members, or member companies, have been jealous because they thought their rivals or competitors were more visible than they at competitions," said MTS President Drew Michel.

Marine technology professionals have many opportunities to interact with students during a Career Expo, poster session, and engineering evaluations of students' ROVs. Employers also get the chance to see how 500 secondary school and college students perform under stress, as their robots perform tasks that mimic undersea workplace challenges.

But Michel says there's a more fundamental reason that marine technology professionals invest their time: "I think the real reason they go to be a judge is because it's fun."

Zande reports that the marine industry and professional societies contribute more than $100,000 in funds to the MATE Center's ROV competitions each year. The MTS ROV Committee alone provides $40,000 to $50,000 annually. She estimates that in-kind contributions of facilities, equipment, personnel time, and expertise exceed $1 million.

Fun and Educational for Students

As the video of the 2012 competition shows, the MATE ROV competitions are fun for the students—quite educational too.

"I have been in the marine industry for 46 years and active in helping with scholarships and other student programs during most of that time. No program I have ever seen comes close to the MATE ROV Competition for getting kids involved. Attending one competition and witnessing firsthand the sense of competition, enthusiasm, and just plain joy will make anyone a believer," Michel said.

"It really is the greatest program I've ever seen for getting kids involved," he added.

An independent evaluation of middle school students' participation in MATE's ROV competitions found that 92% of the middle school students were more excited to study math, science, computer science, or engineering. Teachers saw improvements in students' learning, teamwork, and critical thinking. Parents reported significant improvements in students' grades.

The MATE Center is planning a longitudinal study of student competitors and their career paths.

Zande's anecdotal impact data are compelling:

  • A year after winning the MATE's 2009 International ROV Competition, members of the Long Beach City College team (in the photo) were piloting ROVs for a contractor cleaning up the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
  • The Stockbridge (Michigan) Advanced Underwater Robotic Team has helped the BentProp Project search for evidence of missing World War II veterans in the Republic of Palau.
  • Because the ROV events are "more camaraderie than gut-wrenching competition," Zande said older students mentor the younger students.
  • Lots of friendships, including international friendships, have formed among the competitors.
  • The Purdue University team was organized by a student who thoroughly enjoyed his high school ROV team experience.

Organic Growth of ROV Competitions

The growth of MATE's ROV competition "happened organically" from the professional development workshops MATE offered for teachers and college instructors, Zande said. The educators liked the idea that she and Michel devised to generate students' interest in marine technology and other STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) careers.

MATE started the competitions as a pilot project with National Science Foundation Advanced Technological Education (NSF-ATE) program support in 2001. The next year, 22 teams joined the ROV competitions. This year 620 teams participated in 22 regional events that led up to the international competition for middle school and high school students.

Community college and university teams qualify for the international competition based on the videos they submit to demonstrate that their ROVs meet MATE's performance requirements. In all, 50 teams with about 500 students will demonstrate ROV-building and maneuvering skills as they troubleshoot challenges in the Olympic-size pool of the Weyerhaeuser King County Aquatic Center in Seattle later this month.

While MATE does not devote resources to recruiting teams, it purposefully uses ROVs as a means to capture students' attention and drive their interests in marine technology and other STEM careers.

With NSF-ATE support MATE created a curriculum, textbook, professional development model, ROV kits, and regional competition materials to support the ROV competition and to help teachers, parents, industry professionals, and students organize teams.

See 2012 MATE International ROV Competition video.

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