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Depths of Discovery: Shedd’s Underwater ROV Program

Since Shedd’s Underwater Robotics Program was founded in 2009, we have seen hundreds of ROVs (remotely operated vehicles) with different and creative designs developed by students. While the robots themselves are impressive, the clubs that built them are even more inspiring. Over the course of this program, hundreds of teachers and thousands of students have partnered with Shedd Aquarium to learn about robotics, STEM careers and ways in which underwater robots can help humanity reach new depths of discovery and exploration. Shedd’s ROV program gives students the opportunity to do real science, and for many, including their teachers, it was the first time they had any experience with robotics at all.

An ROV, boxy and built of PVC piping and other parts by Shedd teens bobs just below the surface of a pool during a competition.
After a final check of their boxy, PVC ROV, a team at a competition offsite places their ROV in a pool.

This year’s annual Shedd ROV Club Event was held in March. Twenty-five robotics clubs from Chicago public schools and surrounding areas participated, celebrating their hard work. During this culminating celebration, clubs put their ROVs to the test in the water. Students were able to practice tasks that simulated real-world applications of ROVs in scientific research and industry. Clubs also engaged in a variety of STEM-related activities. At one station, students were even able to fly a real-world, professional ROV! The Club Event was a huge success, and the most rewarding aspect was seeing students experience science firsthand.

For example, after a year spent designing, researching and building an underwater robot, Sabin Dual Language Magnet School arrived at their first ever Shedd Underwater Robotics Club Event. First-year clubs do not always have a fully functional ROV (remotely operated vehicle) by the Club Event, but that was not the case for Sabin’s club. Their ROV not only flew through the water effortlessly, but it was one of the fastest to complete the underwater tasks in the pool. As Sabin’s ROV pilot maneuvered the robot through the water, the students’ faces lit up with excitement.

“Before I joined robotics, I felt invisible in all my classes. Now I feel like I count and I belong to a community.”

Sabin Dual Language Magnet School student
Two teens participating in Shedd's Underwater Robotics event apply heat from a heat gun to a wire attached to their ROV, whose body consists of a pentagonal PVC pipe frame.
A wide shot of an olympic sized swimming pool with clusters of students standing around it. In the water of the deep end nearest the camera, a PVC ROV built by student competitors can be seen at the end of a long electrical tether, investigating the bottom of the pool.

Sabin considered how they could apply their new knowledge and skills to address an environmental issue. Juan Madrigal, robotics teacher at Sabin, recalled a discussion with his club about an article they read stating that by 2050 the plastic garbage in the oceans will outweigh the fish. “The team made a statement that possibly they can create a company that focuses its mission on cleaning the oceans with ROVs,” says Madrigal. “They were making connections on how they can use what they were learning in underwater robotics to create future jobs that will require the understanding of science, technology, engineering, arts and math. Knowing that my students are using what they read in an academic class and connecting it to how robotics can help the future of our planet makes me feel very proud.”

Sabin Dual Language School was only one of the many schools that have been touched by the Shedd Underwater Robotics program. Students from throughout the area gain confidence in STEM and robotics, feel part of a larger community, and extend their learning to concepts beyond robotics. We are so proud of our Shedd ROV clubs and what they accomplished this year.

Belle Archaphorn and Sabrina Bainbridge, Learning Department