Portland students ‘rise to the occasion’ against invasive species

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PORTLAND — Seventh-graders at King Middle School answered the call when the Department of Environmental Protection asked quite the chore of them.

The DEP asked the students to build 35 submersible, remotely operated vehicles to investigate invasive aquatic plants, and the students spent last fall perfecting the devices.

Pamela Porensky, a math teacher at the 92 Deering Ave. expeditionary learning school, learned how to build the ROVs last summer at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. She said the students stepped up to the challenge and went through the same steps a professional would have used.

King Middle School Water Robots from Sun Media on Vimeo.

At the end of the project, the students wrote a formal qualitative research report outlining the successes, struggles and findings from their project. Porensky said as far as she knew, it was the first report of its kind done by middle school students.

“This is the most authentic work I’ve ever seen students do,” Porensky said.

Copies of the research report will be going to the DEP, the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, the University of Southern Maine’s Graduate Research Department, and the Expeditionary Learning organization, among others.

On Jan. 15 at Reiche Elementary School, the students presented their findings and put the ROVs to the test in the school pool.

Seventh-grader Riley Johnson said at times it seemed like the students might not  be able to finish the project. The hardest part, Johnson said, was wiring the devices; he said the best part was going out into the field and looking for invasive species.

“When we were done, we felt like we did a lot of work,” Johnson said.

The students built frames for the devices over the course of three days in the fall, with the help of workers from the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. Porensky said the students learned by trial and error, and used a lot of problem-solving skills to finish the devices. They also went through all the same steps someone in the field of research would go through: preliminary designs, engineering, field work and writing the report.

“It was as real as an engineering project gets,” she said.

The shipyard provided all the materials for the project, which was funded by the shipyard and the National Defense Education Program.

GoPro cameras were attached to the ROVs to help identify invasive plants, such as milfoil, and a mechanical claw was fitted to grab specimens. The ROVs were built out of plastic pipes and pool floats.

The students eventually took the ROVs to places such as Sebago and Highland lakes, and Kettle Cove in Cape Elizabeth, to search for invasive species, several of which they identified. The research report says they found that “invasive crab species are taking over the native crab species in the rocky intertidal zone at Kettle Cove.”

Mike McCarthy, who was the principal at King for nearly 30 years until he retired over the summer, applauded the work the students did.

“When you get kids involved in their learning, they really respond,” McCarthy said at the Jan. 15 event.

Seventh-grader Tyra Pranger said she learned a lot about engineering from the project, specifically how to wire the robots, which she said she knew nothing about before. She said she can use the skills later in life.

“It opened my mind to the problem of invasive species,” Pranger said.

Pranger said the hardest part of the project was building the ROVs, because they had to be “careful and specific” when it came to wiring the devices. She said going out into the field and testing the ROVs was the most exciting part; it was rewarding to see that something they made was successful.

Porensky said projects like these can help students see how math and science skills are used in the real world, and will keep them involved and engaged in the subjects. She said it’s the kind of project the students would remember for the rest of their lives.

There were times when it seemed they may have been asking too much of the students to complete the project, but the students “wanted to go for it.”

“You need to trust (the students),” Porensky said. “They’ll rise to the occasion.”

Colin Ellis can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @colinoellis.

At the Reiche pool in Portland on Monday, Jan. 15, students from King Middle School demonstrate how the remotely operated vehicles they built for the Department of Environmental Protection work under water.

King Middle School seventh-grader Kieran Elliot demonstrates a submersible, remotely operated vehicle.

Students built the ROVs on their own, with some guidance from workers at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. The students also wrote a qualitative research report on their findings.

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Reporter covering the Portland Public School District as well as the town of Falmouth for The Forecaster. Can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net.