GMS squad wins remote-operated vehicle competition

Thursday, December 17, 2015 - 14:24
  • From left to right: Lana Vo, Ashlynn Walker and Nathaniel Lontoc from Team Illiamana at Gruening Middle School were the overall winners in the self-constructed remote-operated vehicle competition that culminated last Friday at the Bartlett High School pool in which teams completed an obstacle course to demonstrate the ability to control movements of the ROV. Photos by Amy Armstrong for the Star

Lana Vo blocked out the cheering crowd and the competitors closing in on her. She listened only to her team members, Nathaniel Lontoc and Ashlynn Walker, as they helped guide her toward achieving her sole focus last Friday morning: getting one of the arms of the team’s ROV to press the button and release the large Styrofoam ball from its captive spot at the bottom of the Bartlett High School pool.

“It was pretty nerve racking; you have a lot of people screaming at you because you want to beat the other team,” Vo said after the competition. “I got a little worried when I could not see anything at the bottom of the pool because ours was making bubbles but my team just told me to go back down, so I did.”

As the representatives from Gruening Middle School’s Team Illiamana, the pressure to win was on the threesome.

“You are almost there,” Lontoc told Vo as he sat poolside keeping one eye on the power level for the ROV’s batteries and the other on the ROV’s movement at the bottom of the pool.

“A little more to the left,” Walker said.

It was difficult to hear. Between the music pounding through the overhead announcement system and the screaming crowd in the stands, the noise level was near deafening.

As roving student reporters from GMS News documented the final ROV event dubbed, “Defuse the Bomb,” Vo maneuvered her team’s brightly-colored ROV closer to its target.

Her mother, Linda Vo, said her daughter’s eye-hand coordination skills come naturally. She and her father, John Vo, a member of the Army’s Airborne Infantry at JBER, are video game addicts, Linda said.

“It is in her blood,” the proud mother of the winning ROV driver said.

For Vo, her teammates and the other 300-plus GMS students that spent the past two months building ROVs as part of their daily academic routine, the life skill victories came long before the competition.

They learned how to use new tools: the physical ones necessary for soldering and pipe cutting and the social ones needed to work effectively in a team environment with people they really didn’t know.

That was part of the master plan designed by Kerry (Steven) Bay, the GMS 8th grade science teacher who headed up the ROV project.

He intentionally teamed students with other classmates that were not in their preferred social circles.

It is a bold step to “force” junior high school students to get out of their comfort zone – even if for academic purposes.

The students said that in the end, being put in the position where they had to not only “work with” but also figure out a way to “get along with” classmates they may not have previously liked turned out to be a positive growing experience.

Well, okay, they didn’t use those exact words.

It was more like, “Well, I didn’t know my partners when we started so I was nervous about that,” as Walker stated or, “When Mr. Bay first assigned our teams, I was concerned that I would be paired with someone I really didn’t like or know,” as Lontoc stated. “But then I got to know them better and I learned that once you get to know people, you can see a completely different side of that person and get to be a better friend overall.”

The GMS ROV project is part of SeaPerch — a national underwater robotic training program that uses ROV construction and competition to teach STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) principles. The program provides teachers with a turn-key curriculum and students with a challenging hands-on opportunity to witness those sometimes boring textbook ideals come to life in a real-world scenario.

The GMS students learned about deep sea exploration and the role much larger ROVs play in mapping the ocean floor and documenting the health of ocean life.

They also discovered last Friday that Mr. Purcella is a decent diver.

Until Friday, they only knew Bryce Purcella as an 8th grade science and Alaska Wildlife Biology teacher.

That all changed when Purcella took to the high dive multiple times to provide crowd entertainment as students in charge of setting up the different obstacles courses in the pool did their work between heats.

Jason Wall, a 7th grade language arts teachers and GMS News advisor, took on announcer duties last Friday. He took a bit of sportscaster liberty announcing pseudo scores for each of Purcella’s dives.

“The louder you guys are, the higher his score is going to be,” Wall said.

It was enough to drive the already crazed ROV fans in the stands over the edge.

They were chanting and stomping as Purcella made his final dive.

As he dried off, the former high school diver said, “It’s been 20 years since I’ve done that.”

And while looking toward rock-n-roll artists for academic inspiration might not be the norm, the blasting of AC/DC’s, “It’s a Long Way to the Top,” through the pool side loudspeakers seemed to sum up the lessons culminated in the ROV competition.

“This was a long-term project for these students to complete,” Bay said “They had to set goals and meet deadlines over the course of the project while learning how to be successful in not only building their ROV but in operating it as a team. This is one of my favorite projects for a lot of reasons.”

Learn more about SeaPerch online at

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