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Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Parker Hannifin puts a robot he and his teammates made through an underwater obstacle course during the Utah Regional SeaPerch Competition at the Lehi Legacy Center in Lehi on Thursday, March 14, 2013.

LEHI — More than 200 elementary and junior high school students gathered Thursday for a race at the pool. But as it turns out, not a single kid got in the water.

Instead, the students unleashed a host of underwater robots to do the swimming for them. 

Partnering with BYU’s School of Engineering, 10 schools from Spanish Fork to Davis County attended the SeaPerch Utah Underwater Challenge, an academic twist on the traditional swim meet and the first engineering competition of its kind in Utah. Beginning last summer, BYU engineering professor Tadd Truscott designed the obstacle course and gave students from October until Thursday to build a robot capable of removing six weighted rings from a pool of water.

He funded much of the project after securing a grant from the federal Office of Naval Research, which funds the SeaPerch education program.

“There was more to this project than science and math. There’s creativity and innovation, being able to work around a problem,” said Truscott, who also hosted the event as the emcee and principal coordinator. “They have to come up with solutions. We wanted them to know the ability itself is already in them.”

Students were given the same basics: PVC pipe, three motors, materials to insulate the robot and additional materials to keep the device afloat. The five teams with the fastest times removing the rings were awarded for their innovation with prizes including Kindle Fires, iPod Shuffles and watch calculators.

“Think of how amazing it is, what you did today,” Truscott told a cheering crowd of students at the awards ceremony. “You built flipping underwater robots!”

“Engineers are the people that discover new things, build amazing devices and invent new technologies that change our lives — whether it’s the phone in your pocket, the watch on your arm, the space shuttle, or the pacemaker that keeps your grandpa’s heart beating,” he said.

Ninth graders Landon Douglas, Jacob Millett and Jaehying Jun from Canyon View Junior High School in Orem finished the course in just 2 minutes, 49 seconds and took home first place by using angled wire pincers attached to the robot to trap the rings. Landon said the group had been spending a lot of time testing whether their designs were effective.

“We thought we’d do pretty good because we’ve been working on this since every week for a while, so it’s nice,” he said. “But I’m really amazed we got a prize as nice as this,” he added, holding up his Kindle Fire.

Jacob’s mother, LaNae Millett, said the group learned how to collaborate with other teams at the school in addition to gaining technical skills. She said she tries to help her son take advantage of competitions like this, but they are fairly rare.

“It pulled these boys out of their book learning and put them into a hands-on, tactile environment,” Millett said. “If your talents are in those areas, it’s nice to know what your possibilities are. I know that after this, my son wants to get his robotics merit badge.”

Randy Hurd is a graduate assistant to Truscott and helped coordinate the project along with more than 60 undergraduate volunteers from BYU. He said the competition was held partly to educate students that engineering can lead to surefire job opportunities down the road.

“A lot of government agencies, the Department of Defense in particular, are interested in encouraging kids in these fields. They’re worried that in 10 years, there won’t be enough qualified people to fill all the positions they’ll have available,” Hurd said. “A lot of kids are intimidated by math and science, but we can kind of spark their interest with an event like this.”

BYU also heavily used the support of Hill Air Force Base, which assisted the university with coordinating the competition and also donated additional funding. Judith Maughan, the education outreach officer for Hill, said she’s interested in getting the funding to expand the program and include more schools and venues in the future.

“At first, I wasn’t big on the idea (of an underwater robot competition) because we’re so landlocked, but it grew on me and it’s been a real success. It’s been a tool (for educating about engineering),” Maughan said. “I’d like to see us in a couple years holding similar events at the Great Salt Lake itself.”

Truscott also wants to expand but said securing funds is an immediate need to make the competition a yearly tradition.

“There’s a ton of interest from today alone,” Truscott said. “A ton of kids came up to me today and said, ‘What do we do now? What’s next?’ We’d love to answer that for them.” 

Twitter: @benlockhart89