Los Fresnos High wins SeaPerch Challenge
By Jennifer Berghom, Public Affairs Representative
(956) 665-7192
Posted: 09/30/2011
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With a little PVC pipe and a lot of ingenuity, nearly five dozen high school students from all over the Rio Grande Valley showed their engineering prowess during the SeaPerch Challenge Friday, Sept. 30 during The University of Texas-Pan American's Hispanic Engineering, Science and Technology (HESTEC) week.

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Los Fresnos High School won the SeaPerch Challenge at UTPA Friday, Sept. 30. Pictured left to right are U.S. Navy Cmdr. Jonathan Lovejoy, commanding officer at the Navy Recruitment District at San Antonio; winners Luis Benavides; Cesar Rodriguez; Miguel Herrera; Christian Mendez; Eric Mendez; and Navy Cmdr. Corry Juedeman, officer at Navy Recruitment District at San Antonio.

The competition, sponsored by the U.S. Navy, included 11 teams from high schools across the Rio Grande Valley vying for prizes and the regional title. Los Fresnos High School's team proved its watercraft was hard to get ahead of, scoring 87.3 points with their SeaPerch, the "S.S. Hard to Get," to win the overall competition. As winners of the contest, the Los Fresnos team will travel to Manassas, Va. in April 2012 for the national competition. About 70 teams are expected to participate in the event. This was the first year the U.S. Navy conducted the event at UTPA.

The Los Fresnos team members -- all of whom are enrolled in the school's Navy Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps (NJROTC) -- said they were thrilled to represent the NJROTC and their school and they look forward to representing the Valley at the national competition.

"We love the opportunity to be able to show how people from the Valley have the capacity to do great things here and hopefully make a name for ourselves," said Los Fresnos team member Christian Mendez, a 17-year-old senior.

Mendez, who wants to study electrical engineering at Stanford University in California, said he and fellow team members enjoyed having the opportunity to put what they've learned in the classroom to practical use.

"This is a real-life scenario," he said. "You learn physics in the classroom, you know how things work in an ideal situation, but this is now physics in application in the real world. ... It's a direct application of physics and real-life scenarios, which is what I love the most about it. A competition really pushes you toward doing your best."

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A SeaPerch watercraft travels through a ring in an underwater obstacle course during the SeaPerch Challenge at UTPA Friday, Sept. 30. Photo courtesy of Nick Kaylor, U.S. Navy.

Teams were timed on how quickly they could maneuver their watercraft through an underwater obstacle course and how quickly they could pick up small plastic rings from the bottom of the pool. Any team collecting all 20 rings within five minutes received bonus points. Los Fresnos picked up all the rings in the fastest time: three minutes and 28 seconds.

The students were also critiqued on how well they presented their designs to a panel of judges from the U.S. Navy.

During the awards ceremony, UTPA President Robert S. Nelsen told the students that organizations, such as the U.S. Navy, and companies come to the Valley every year to recruit students from the area because they know that Valley students have the talent they are looking for.

"You have to believe in yourselves," Nelsen said. "You have to believe that you can accomplish anything because you really can."

Nelsen stressed the need for the teenagers to finish high school and go to college. He told them that only 30 percent of high school graduates in the Valley go to college, whereas the state average is 64 percent.

"We need more of you," he said. "You have to believe, your parents have to believe, your teachers do believe in you ... There's a university here that believes in the Valley and believes in you."

SeaPerch started at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) more than a decade ago as a training program for teachers, said Susan Nelson, the program's executive director.

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Erasto Zenil, a 10th grade student at Rio Grande City High School, lifts his team's watercraft after competing in an underwater obstacle course during the SeaPearch competition Friday, Sept. 30.

"I thought, 'This is a great program, but you can't reach enough kids doing it this way.' And I saw the potential that this could be a program that could really impact kids across the country," Nelson said.

About four and a half years ago, she sought and received a grant from the Office of Naval Research to create a program that directly works with students. The program began with training 750 students four years ago and at the end of 2010 more than 27,000 students have participated in the program.

"It's now the Navy's signature outreach program," Nelson said.

Nelson said she has had teachers with more than 30 years experience tell her this is their favorite project to do with students because the youths become so engaged with it.

The program's goal is to make students aware of the different types of careers related to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) and to spark an interest in them to consider pursuing STEM-related fields, Nelson said.

"We look at STEM education as a yellow brick road," she said. "You start with them when they're younger and you expose them to different things, and at the end the goal is that they are interested in studying STEM fields and becoming STEM professionals based on these types of programs."

HESTEC concludes Saturday with its Community Day, featuring performances by award-winning country music star Clay Walker and the Science Cheerleaders, a group of current and former NFL and NBA cheerleaders who also work in science-related careers, as well as appearances by former NASA Astronaut Jose Hernandez and actor and TV host Mario Lopez. Community Day will also feature numerous exhibits and activities including the National Science Foundation-sponsored Little Shop of Physics and Tutankhamun: Wonderful Things from the Pharaoh’s Tomb, as well as viewings of Stars of the Pharaohs at the UTPA H-E-B Planetarium and at the UTPA Fieldhouse.

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