REXBURG – Life is like a story problem.

The much maligned math method requiring students to figure out the proper mathematical procedure to solve the problem, actually has a purpose for later in life.

So says Naval Nuclear Laboratory Electrical Engineer Brent Gunderson, who with fellow laboratory engineers, has helped eight children from Nell George’s Madison Middle School sixth grade class create underwater robots for a competition scheduled Friday at the Wes Deist Aquatic Center in Idaho Falls.

“Story problems are great because it’s applied mathematics and applied physics. When you do something like this, you’re using applied math. You have to figure out the mathematics and physics to get to the actual problem,” he said.

“Something like this” would be the SeaPerch program that Gunderson and his fellow engineers have been helping the students with since January. The Navy’s SeaPerch program is designed in hopes of spurring interest in the sciences and in particular marine engineering.

The engineers have been working with the youth in creating, designing and working with underwater robots. They met for their final week at the AmericInn pool on Wednesday. The company has offered its facility to the group free of charge.

At the AmericInn, students and engineers have practiced controlling and manipulating the water robots in preparation for the upcoming competition. “Pool engineer” Jordan Freeman swam in the pool to help students with their robots. At one point, youth successfully guided a robot via a remote control through a small underwater hoop.

The students said that it all proved a lot of fun and not too difficult.

“It’s pretty easy to do. You’ve got to know how to control it. It’s kind of hard to get used to it, but other than that, it’s easy,” said student Kash Wright.

Wright’s fellow student Macie Sessions agreed.

“It’s fun to do. It’s not hard to make. I enjoyed it,” she said.

“It was a good experience — not hard,” student Talmage Kugath said.

The engineers said that it wasn’t hard to transfer their knowledge to the children and said that much of what they taught the students is similar to what they do every day — albeit at a much simpler level.

“We’re not dealing with the same complicated systems, but the principles still apply. We figure out what works, come up with a hypothesis to see what’s going to work, build and test. It’s a similar process (here),” said mechanical engineer Keegan Ryan.

Ryan enjoyed helping the sixth graders with the robots.

“To work with young students, to see their excitement and to keep them on task — it’s fun,” he said.

Engineer Tim Davis said that helping with the SeaPerch has been beneficial to both the engineers and the students.

“We’re talking about basic engineering skills with the students. A lot of the technical work we do can be simplified into the simple engineering tasks these students are doing,” he said. “If they have a technical problem, they solve the problem using the math and science they’ve learned from school. We go over basic principles with them, and they come up with the changes to the robots that they’ve worked on.”

Educator Nell George got the idea for the SeaPerch project thanks to her next-door neighbor Corianne Moore who works at the Naval facility, and asked George if she knew of anyone interested in the project.

“When her company approved her to do this and said they would fund her, she came to me and asked ‘Do you have any kids who would be interested?’ I said ‘Of course, and here we are,” George said.

Thanks to that, George’s young engineers will compete on Friday against teams from Idaho Falls and Pocatello.

“There will be obstacle courses in the pool. They will need to control their SeaPerch to get through these obstacles and pick things up. That’s the end goal,” she said.

Earlier this year, George divided her students into two teams of four. With the help of engineers, youth built their robots from scratch. The robots are about the size of a loaf of bread.

“They cut their PVC pipes and put together their controllers,” George said. “For nine weeks, we’ve been making modifications and testing it at the pool.”

This is the first time that the SeaPerch program has been offered in this part of Idaho. It’s also something new for George to teach, she said.

“This being so in depth and hands-on, and to see them actually grasp it and to enjoy it so much — I think the most important part for me is watching them be so interested in engineering and robotics,” she said.

George invited her science class students to sign up for the program and later selected five boys and three girls to be part of SeaPerch.

“It’s been awesome with how hands-on it’s been,” she said.

According to its webpage, SeaPerch teaches students and educators how to build underwater “Remotely Operated Vehicles” in or out of school. SeaPerch provides a kit that teaches engineering and science concepts with a “marine engineering theme.”

“The SeaPerch Program provides students with the opportunity to learn about robotics, engineering, science, and mathematics (STEM) while building an underwater ROV as part of a science and engineering technology curriculum,” it said.

Gunderson said SeaPerch is a way to encourage youth to study the sciences.

“It’s to hopefully spur their interest to go into robotics later and to learn the math, the physics and different things required in future careers,” he said.

Children learn best via hands-on activities, Gunderson said.

“When I was in school, if I saw an application, it meant a lot more than just doing a formula or whatever. It means more if you can actually see an application,” he said.

SeaPerch reports that future jobs will require a basic understanding of math and science. It also noted that at one time, the U.S. was third in the world for the number of engineers graduating from college. That number has since dropped to 17th.

“In the U.S., only five percent of science degrees are awarded in engineering, as compared with 50% in China. If not addressed, the expected shortage of skilled workers could decrease the U.S.’s global competitiveness and may result in a lack of expertise in mission-critical areas,” it said.

Without such workers, the Navy’s ability to maintain its level of Science and Technology work will decrease substantially.

“Through programs like SeaPerch, the goal is to engage and inspire young people by exposing them to exciting, hands-on, and mentor-based programs that build science, engineering and technology skills, while at the same time fostering self-confidence and life skills,” it said.

SeaPerch resulted from Harry Bohm and Vickie Jensen’s book “How to Build an Underwater Robot.” Eventually an MIT professor created a SeaPerch curriculum to help develop the Ocean Engineering Program at MIT. The Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers later managed the program and partnered with the Office of Naval Research to transform the SeaPerch Program into a national STEM program.

As for those difficult math story problems, Gunderson said they really have a purpose.

“My kids hated them. I keep telling them, ‘This is the greatest. This is what you’re going to work with in life,” he said.

For more information on the SeaPerch program, visit https://www.seaperch.org/index.