STEM camp teaches Tahoe students to build underwater robots |

STEM camp teaches Tahoe students to build underwater robots

Claire Cudahy
Sophia Wagner, 13, and Vanessa Yee, 11, watch the monitor that is displaying the footage from the underwater robot they built.
Claire Cudahy / Tahoe Daily Tribune |

Down near the Lakeview Commons boat launch, a gaggle of exited kids are preparing to launch the underwater robots they have been working on all week. It’s the final day of their STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) camp offered through Lake Tahoe Community College’s community education program, CONNECT.

“We used PVC for the frame, pool noodles for floats, and landscape netting,” said 14-year-old Emerson Hansa-Beavers before putting his robot in the water and helping his partner unravel the 30 feet of cord connected to the controller.

The two boys looked down excitedly at the screen mounted on the controller, which was made by instructor David Wise using a 3-D printer and a replacement backup camera for a car. From the ice fishing camera mounted on their robot, they can see a few rocks and sand ripples.

Soon Wise will toss prizes — 3-D printed fidget spinners he created — for the kids to retrieve with their robots.

“We learned how to work with wires,” said 13-year-old Sophia Wagner, as she and her partner Vanessa Yee took turns maneuvering their robot through the choppy water.

“I like to make stuff and put things together,” chimed in 11-year-old Yee. “It was a little hard, but still fun.”

According to Wise, a South Tahoe High graduate who went on to earn a degree in mechanical and ocean engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), project-based learning is the best way to foster interest.

“I think they had a really great time,” said Wise. “They learned some basics like how to solder, hand crimp, and twist wires. We talked a little about motors, and about buoyancy and stability, so how to make the robot float at the right point where the motor could drive it down or drive it up.”

Tahoe STEM Camp co-director Jamie Orr, along with Wise, is responsible for bringing nine STEM courses for students in elementary, middle and high school to Lake Tahoe this summer.

“The STEM camps expose them to subjects in a hands-on way that they maybe didn’t realize could even be careers in Tahoe — or anywhere — in a way that is fun and engaging,” said Orr.

“For Tahoe it’s good because they could be the next kid that graduates college and comes back and founds an amazing startup, or they could go and get an amazing research job somewhere. We haven’t always had those opportunities for students.”

There is still room to sign up for two summer STEM courses for students ages 12 – 14. From July 24 – 28 Wise is teaching a course on basic robots, culminating in a head-to-head competition on the final day. During that same period, Orr is leading a young inventors class where students will learn how to design and produce a product using a 3-D printer.

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