At the beginning of June, Harrington Middle School’s SeaPerch underwater robotics team reached the top of the mountain in competition. One of the Harrington teams, Team Thalassa, was named the overall national champion at the 2019 SeaPerch Challenge at the University of Maryland, besting dozens of other middle school and high school teams from across the country.
Nearly three months after Team Thalassa came home with the national championship trophy, the school community is still buzzing about the achievement. The marquee sign outside of Harrington still declares the school as the home of the national champion SeaPerch team. Inside the building, a permanent display was unveiled just outside of the classroom of Harrington STEM teacher and SeaPerch head coach Maureen Barrett last Tuesday. In a special ceremony, Harrington principal Ryan Caltabiano unveiled a sign in the school hallway in honor of the 2019 national championship. Seven of the 10 members of Team Thalassa were on hand for the official unveiling.
“It truly sunk in today when they said national champions out of the whole country,” said Andoni Christou, a member of Team Thalassa.
“All of the hard work that we put in to solving problems and just working in general has finally made a lasting impact on the legacy of the school,” added Rohan Gawande, another 2019 team member.
Harrington’s team has become a fixture at the SeaPerch national competition for the past six years. SeaPerch is an underwater robotics program where students build a remotely operated vehicle, or ROV, designed to complete a challenge. Teams compete in regional events to try to qualify for the National SeaPerch Challenge held in late spring each year.
Harrington SeaPerch’s first trip to nationals came in 2014, when the team competed at the University of Southern Mississippi. Since then, the team has been back every year and has boosted its finish with each passing season. As the team’s performance has improved, expectations have increased.
“We saw all of these trophies and we realized we had to maintain that,” said 2019 team member Adithya Selvakumar. “We can’t be the team that failed. We have to do better. We want to be the best.”
This year’s SeaPerch teams were tasked with a challenge modeled after a real-life event. In 2018, members of a football team in Thailand were rescued after being trapped in a cave for more than two weeks. The SeaPerch Challenge involved using the ROV to light a beacon and then having the vehicle transport provisions and supplies through a cave.
“Mechanically, the robot had to be built for speed,” Selvakumar said. “It had to be as agile as possible, but it also has to be controllable for the pilot.
“It also needs to have stability so when it picks up items that are equal to or higher than the robot itself. It still needed to maintain an accurate pitch and roll so it can carry the item as it moves through the water,” Selvakumar continued.
Winning at SeaPerch involves more than completing the challenge. The robots must also traverse an obstacle course, and the students on each team also have to give a presentation on their robot. A lot of work outside of building and operating the ROV goes into becoming a winning team.
“There is a lot of dedication, the engineering notebook, all of the things that go into it are more than just the robot in the water,” assistant coach Jessica Ashman said. “There’s a lot behind the scenes.”
The team also has to be ready for anything to happen at the competition. At nationals, Team Thalassa realized a sensor needed to switch the ROV’s beacon light on wasn’t working. Just a few hours before competition, the team needed to replace the sensor and rebuild its lighting mechanism. The team succeeded and would go on to place first in both the mission course and obstacle course.
“You can’t predict what’s going to happen, but seeing the passion Maureen puts into the team and the kids put into the team, you knew the greatness was going to happen,” Ashman said.
Barrett said she never imagined SeaPerch having the success it has had over the past few years. She credited the students for dedicating hundreds of hours each school year to work on the projects.
“I never imagined us being state winners so many times and being invited to nationals every year since our first year,” Barrett said. “It’s blown me away. It’s humbling, it’s amazing, it’s just awesome to be competing at that level every year.”
Christou, Selvakumar and Gawande’s time with SeaPerch is over as all three students graduated from Harrington in 2019. However, last Tuesday’s ceremony gave them a chance to relive their national title and look forward to what lies ahead for them.
“There’s a lot of nostalgia when you live here, especially because we spent most of our lives the past two years in here,” Selvakumar said. “But we’re definitely continuing with robotics.”