MATE ROV: A Teacher’s Reflection

Guest Contributor: Kama Almasi

IMG_6778Saturday, April 25th marked the culmination of the largest-scale project I’ve done with a group of students. It was an utterly exhausting, exhilarating, and rewarding experience both for me and for the vast majority of my kids. I endured:

  • sleepless nights
  • frantic phone calls for help (by me to other people, not the reverse!)
  • frantic runs, mostly by my husband, to hardware and electronic stores to get materials and supplies I didn’t know I needed until I couldn’t find them
  • and even some tears, though thankfully not in front of the kids.

Despite all of this, I am already planning next year’s repeat performance!

What am I talking about? Why, the 2015 Oregon Regional MATE ROV Competition in North Bend, of course. For those unfamiliar with this competition, MATE stands for Marine Advanced Technology Education, and ROV stands for Remotely Operated Vehicle (here is the URL for our Regional Center: ). The annual competition poses scientific and engineering challenges for students, and this year the theme was ROVs in Extreme Environments: Science and Industry in the Arctic.

This project is not for the fainthearted, of which I was definitely one. When the Oregon Coast STEM Hub’s Ruth McDonald first suggested the project to me, my immediate internal reaction was “HAH! No way!” and my external reaction was “No, the middle schoolers studied the Physics standards last year, this year we need to cover other standards”. But a few months into the year, while still struggling with major behavior issues in my oversized classes, I finally relented. I was desperate for some way to improve the situation in my classroom, so I decided to dive in with all 90+ middle school science students, despite my extreme lack of knowledge of wiring and electronics. It still took me another few months before I actually started the project, but at least I knew it was on the horizon.

To be perfectly honest, the first two weeks of the project were torture. The classroom was utter chaos, I was grossly unprepared, KODAK Digital Still Cameraand I felt like a naïve, first-year teacher. But suddenly I realized during the third week that student engagement was far, far higher than it had been all year. Students walked into my room and immediately started working, even before the bell had rung! This was a miracle for my room. Students consulted with each other about how to wire, which wires were positive vs. negative, what a double-pull double-throw switch is, and what kinds of extensions to build onto their ROVs. They argued and argued, but it was all about design, engineering, and science! They also fell in love with my husband, whom they did not realize was my husband, as he was volunteering in the classroom nearly every day of the project. When he was absent they always noticed immediately: “Where’s my man, Rex?” I would hear, and “I NEED him!”

The run-off competition week finally arrived in Waldport. I had 16 teams; how on earth would I make sure they were all ready for competition and what would I do with them to whittle them down to the final two teams? Turns out I couldn’t make sure they were all ready — it was up to them. And in fact, many were not ready; that turned out to be part of the learning experience for them. It was a stressful but rewarding time; at the pool, students who were normally disengaged in academics were constantly troubleshooting problems and challenges. What a treat to witness this growth! And what a joy to call home and tell the winning teams that they were headed to Regionals.

KODAK Digital Still CameraLast Saturday’s Regional Competition was quite possibly the most challenging, yet rewarding day. My colleagues, Melissa Steinman, Holly Schell, and Daniel Wirick, and I took two middle school and two high school teams from Waldport to the competition in North Bend. We saw pride, disappointment, and learning experienced by our kids, while we all experienced the excitement of seeing the great talent and variety of the other teams. Reading the posters and seeing the ROVs was great fun, but the Place to Be was poolside. How to describe the satisfaction in watching small groups of teens so purely focused on their mission, eyes on the water, the only spoken words about the task at hand. Propeller falls off? All hands work together to fix it. Mission nearly accomplished? The entire team and the spectators wait in silence, with baited breath.

IMG_3310During the Awards Ceremony, although our four teams did not place, I found myself getting choked up with joy and excitement as one of the Toledo teams won the Navigator category, ensuring their ROV would be on display at the Oregon Coast Aquarium for the next 1 ½ years, and as one of the Taft 7-12 teams (freshmen!) won the Ranger category, earning a trip to the International MATE Competition in Newfoundland, Canada. The Waldport adults were all so exhausted that we thought the kids would fall asleep immediately on the bus trip home last night, but it was not to be. The entire trip was filled with excited kids talking about what happened that day, and what they want to do next year. We all cracked up as, near the end of the trip we heard one student say, “Is anyone besides me tired?”

I could never have pulled off this profound, rewarding experience without the help of many dedicated colleagues and friends, especially at the Oregon Coast STEM Hub. I was going to list them all here, but I think instead I’ll thank them personally and tell you this: Please, if you are hesitant to try something like this, if you feel inadequate or inexperienced, or faint of heart, just dive right in. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, because you’ll need it, but do it. For your sake and your kids’ sake. I will just end by saying how grateful I am to my 90+ students who made me so happy to be their teacher. I needed that.

KODAK Digital Still Camera

Kama Almasi teaches Science at Crestview Heights and Waldport High School. She has a PhD in Ecology and has lived across the street from the Pacific Ocean off and on for 20 years. Kama is also a member of the Oregon Coast STEM Hub Steering Committee. She and her teaching partner brought two SCOUT class teams from Crestview Heights to the Oregon Regional MATE ROV Competition: Poseidon’s Pirates and Nerdz 4 Life.

April 25th ROV Competition

Oregon Competition Helps Students Learn about Polar Science and Technology with Underwater Robots
Winners head to Canada in June for international contest

April 23, 2015— The Oregon Coast Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Hub, in conjunction with the Marine Advanced Technology Education (MATE) Center, has issued an icy challenge to Oregon students. On Saturday, April 25th, 38 teams of elementary, middle school, high school, and college students from across Oregon will compete in an underwater robotics competition in North Bend, Oregon that focuses on the use of these vehicles in scientific research and the offshore oil industry in the Arctic Ocean.

ROV2014-1An annual event, the Oregon Regional MATE ROV Competition encourages students to learn and apply science, technology, engineering, and math skills as they develop underwater robots – also known as remotely operated vehicles or ROVs – to complete missions that simulate real-world problems from the ocean workplace.

Established 4 years ago, the Oregon Regional MATE ROV Competition continues to expand in both team numbers and geographic area from which teams hail, with teams traveling from as far as Klamath Falls and Astoria to attend.

ROV2014-2The competition theme changes every year. This year’s contest highlights the role of ROVs in scientific research and the offshore oil industry in the extreme environment of the Arctic. Like scientists who work in polar conditions, students will pilot their ROVs under a simulated ice sheet where they will count and sample organisms, deploy scientific instruments, and collect iceberg data. They will also pilot their ROVs to complete tasks from the offshore oil industry, including inspecting pipelines and testing deep-sea oilfield equipment. In addition to their ROV missions, student teams must also create a poster and be interviewed by engineering judges.

The competition promotes the development of entrepreneurship and leadership skills by requiring students to organize themselves into a company structure with each student taking on a specific role. It transports students from the classroom into the business world, where the student-run, simulated companies design, manufacture, and market their student-built underwater robots. The process requires students to manage a project and budget, brainstorm innovative solutions, and work as a team – all important 21st century workforce skills.

ROV2014-4The Oregon Regional MATE ROV Competition is supported by numerous partners and over 50 volunteers, who serve as divers, judges and support staff. This year’s competition is sponsored by the Oregon Coast STEM Hub, which is a collaboration of over 50 coastal partners focused on providing world-class STEM opportunities for coastal teachers and their students. Additional support comes from the MATE Center, the Marine Technology Society, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), Oregon Sea Grant, the Sexton Corporation, Oregon State University, the Oregon Institute of Marine Biology, and the Oregon Coast Aquarium.

The Oregon Regional Competition is one of 24 regional contests held around the world whose efforts are coordinated by the MATE Center. Top teams from the upper level divisions will earn the opportunity to compete in MATE’s 14th annual international ROV competition, which will be held June 25-27, 2015 at the Marine Institute of Memorial University, St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada.

The public is invited to attend the competition and cheer for their local teams. The Oregon Regional MATE ROV Competition will be held from 8:30 am to 4:30 pm on Saturday, April 25th at the North Bend Community Pool and North Bend High School. For more information, please contact the Oregon Coast STEM Hub at


Girls in Engineering and Marine Science (GEMS)

Guest Contributor: Marie Kowalski

GEMS 2015

A team with their light trap

On April 16th, twenty-seven young women arrived at Hatfield Marine Science Center, excited for two sunny days of science and engineering. The Oregon Coast STEM Hub hosted this highly engaging program called GEMS (Girls in Engineering and Marine Science) to connect 7th and 8th grade girls on the Oregon coast with female researchers and engineers working in marine-related fields. The program offered an opportunity for girls to learn about new careers, collaborate, complete engineering challenges, make new connections, and gain confidence in science and engineering.

Completing the ROV challenge at the test site

Completing the ROV challenge at the test site

The first engineering challenge began quickly after a brief welcome and introduction. The girls were charged with building the tallest, strongest structure possible using only a few simple materials. Each team got right to work, collaborating to create a unique design, testing their structures’ strength with pennies, and then redesigning their towers. After this creative warm-up, Sarah Henkel, a professor at Oregon State University, spoke with the group about her research on wave energy development and its effects on benthic communities. Sarah described how complex and exciting research can be, as well as the number of people it takes to operate scientific equipment like ROVs (remotely operated vehicles). The girls were then able to work in teams, designing their own ROVs and testing them by completing an underwater task. The variety of designs was amazing, and everyone got a chance to drive their ROV.

In the afternoon, the GEMS girls had a chance to meet women working with marine organisms of all sizes. Scarlett Arbuckle shared her knowledge of plankton and a method of catching plankton in a light trap. The girls designed and built their own light traps, which they later deployed in the Yaquina Estuary and left overnight. They had to wait in suspense until the next morning to see what types of plankton they had trapped.

Using a launcher to "Pin the tag on the whale"

Using a launcher to “Pin the tag on the whale”

Shifting to animals on a larger scale, Shea Steingass and Barb Lagerquist from the Marine Mammal Institute joined the group to discuss tracking harbor seals and whales. The girls got to see the tags used to track these animals, and many seemed surprised at the size of the tags. They even got to use an antenna to track a tagged “seal” hidden on the Hatfield Marine Science Center campus and practice tagging a “whale” with a straw rocket launcher! Later that afternoon, Christine Clapp from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife walked the girls through a dissection of adult Steelhead. Every single girl was engaged in the dissection, pulling out the gills, swim bladder, eyeballs, heart, and many other organs. Some even had a huge pile of bright orange eggs on their table!

At the end of the first day, the group took a survey of the shore crabs present near HMSC in the estuary, marking and releasing crabs after taking measurements. Even after a full day of scientific fun, girls enthusiastically participated in the Sleep with the Sharks sleepover program at the Oregon Coast Aquarium. The girls were able to meet female aquarium staff who worked in several different capacities at the aquarium and learn about their career paths.

GEMS LT2 2015After sleeping in the tunnels with sharks and other fish swimming overhead all night, the girls recovered their light traps and investigated the success of their trap designs under the microscope. They saw many copepods, a larval fish, and several other types of plankton. Friday morning also had an opportunity for the girls to explore the HMSC visitor center and take a behind the scenes tour of the facility with female HMSC husbandry staff.

OSU Fisheries and Wildlife PhD student Chante Davis lead a DNA extraction activity with the group. She also shared a demonstration showing the importance of using genetics to manage fishing practices using goldfish crackers and skittles, yum! The final GEMS guest was Marine Resource Management Master’s student Jessica Porquez. She discussed her research with wind energy devices and their potential impacts on sea birds, which also provided a context for the final design challenge: creating efficient wind turbine blades. The girls worked in teams to create, test, and redesign their turbine blades.

Extracting DNA from strawberries

Extracting DNA from strawberries

This two day program was exciting, collaborative, intellectual, challenging, and inspiring. Many girls asked if the program would be happening again next year, even before it was over.

When asked what was their favorite part of GEMS, some of the girls replied that they especially liked:

“All these strong science women who have done so well in their career and how they told us, thank you :)”

“I enjoyed learning about all of the different marine life and being able to learn about how people got to where they are now.”

“I enjoyed the part when we learned the sleepover attendants’ way to their job over at the aquarium.  It really inspired me to learn how to pursue the husbandry industry.”

“Everything! But if I had to choose it would be the light trap, the crab survey, the wind turbine experiment and the fun sleepover!!!!!”


Marie Kowalski is a master’s student at Oregon State University in Marine Resource Management with a focus on marine education.  She is currently developing a relevant middle school curriculum about microplastics for her thesis.  Marie also gets to be involved with some of the education-related programs at Hatfield, including the Oregon Coast STEM Hub and events like GEMS!


Update: Sharing Salmon Stories Abroad

Guest Contributor:  Joseph O’Neil

This post is a follow up to Joseph’s earlier post: Sharing Salmon Stories Abroad

Joseph O'Neil in Russia

Joseph O’Neil in Russia

Vladivostok, Russia. What an experience!!! I spent 5 days discussing how we in Oregon educate our students on issues ranging from global climate change to the importance of caring for the environment and specifically salmon.  I met with various primary educators and their students, as well as the education team for the unfinished Primorsky Aquarium.

Student Presenters in RussiaI was asked to be the keynote speaker at a conference where the children were presenting their problem-based learning experience before a panel of professional environmental scientists. As I sat listening to my interpreter translate, I was in awe at the level of professionalism these young people exhibited. Their heads barely above the podium, presentation on the screen behind, dressed in their best, they spoke confidently and with an authority I seldom witness in the conferences I attend of professionals.

The problems of poaching and lack of care for the environment — due in large part to the depressed economy — are driving educators to reach out to young people with the message that change can happen and they are the solution.

At another conference I attended sponsored by the Phoenix Fund, a World Wildlife affiliate, I listened to educators speak about their programs and how they are reaching their students. The takeaway for me was of optimism and hope and openness to new ideas.

I returned having made new friends, carrying business cards written in a language I don’t understand, and a mission to aid in whatever way I can to help my Russian friends further develop their education programs with the aid of the Oregon Coast Aquarium, Hatfield Marine Science Center and the Oregon Coast STEM Hub.


Joseph O’Neil is the Senior Technician and Outreach Coordinator for the Oregon Hatchery Research Center (OHRC) in Alsea, Oregon. OHRC is a cooperative research project between the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Oregon State University Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, and is a partner in the Oregon Coast STEM Hub.