Industry Interview: Reversing the Great Crew Change in the 6th Grade

In the coming years the era known as the great crew change will be ushered in: an era where a large portion of seasoned oil and gas professionals will begin to retire, resulting in “A generational gap in the workforce, with fewer keepers and passers of knowledge to transmit the evolution of technology—engineering practices—and technical know-how” (1). This is compounded by the fact that “Few American students pursue…the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM)—and [the lack of] teachers skilled in those subjects” (2). This, in turn, limits the talent pool from where to develop future oil and gas professionals.

                For this reason, we—at Reaching Ultra (RU)—are excited to interview Joshua Beagan, a STEM teacher at Gaudet middle school, out of Middletown, Rhode Island. It is here that Beagan is executing cutting-edge, and high caliber projects with his students: Projects that have greatly drawn RU’s interest. For this reason, we are interviewing Beagan, so as to give a frontline view of Gaudet’s hands on curriculum, and the manner by which its students further their STEM competencies. Moreover, we strongly believe that Gaudet’s program and vision offer a viable solution to dampening the effects of the great crew change, while equally reversing America’s downturn in the STEM development.


Figure 1: LEGO Mindstorms prototype robot

RU: The last time we interfaced, your students were working on a project where they were programming robots to navigate a maze. Can you expand further on this project? 

Beagen: This is one of my students’ favorite projects, as I—the president of a pretend mining company—issue a request for the build of a robot that can enter and accurately map a mine. I use this approach to give my students a real world request for build experience. In regards to the build itself, my students must choose between four sensors (light, touch, sound, and ultrasonic): Their selection typically takes 2 to 3 weeks. During this period they conduct their own research on these sensors, to determine which is best for finding objects and measuring distances.

For this reason, all reference objects are hidden, requiring my students to solely rely on these sensors, so as to independently determine where the objects lie and at what distance.  After multiple trials, they conclude that the ultrasonic sensor is the best choice, which is only revealed to them after trial testing.  Once this is done we carry out a three day of lesson on polar graphing with the ultrasonic sensor, were they learn how to map an area.  The video, Figure 2, that accompanies this interview illustrates my students testing their robots’ movement; it also shows them working on their programming skills, as the robot navigates the maze. 

RU:  Another neat program that peeks our interest is the Office of Naval Research’s (ONR) Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) SeaPerch program, “Which equips teachers and students with the resources they need to build an ROV.” Can you expand on what led to your involvement with this program?

Figure 2: Robot with ultrasonic sensor; first part of video shows it colliding with maze. Second part shows unobstructed travel

Beagen: I was introduced to the SeaPerch program via the staff at the Newport’s Naval Base in Rhode Island. After learning more about this unique program, and how students build ROVs from raw materials, requiring assembly, I quickly saw how it could benefit my students, as a result I to applied for a SeaPerch grant. To my amazement I was awarded two grants this year, with ONR funding one and Raytheon funding the other. I equally secured 4 additional grants for underwater cameras and monitors to give my students a more realistic “view” of underwater operations. I must point out that having these cameras has greatly benefited Gaudet’s curriculum, as they further reinforce what I teach my students, in regards to the need of machines and robots requiring sensors and cameras to send feedback to humans. I also ensure that my students become accustomed to controlling their ROVs via the camera feed and not the ROV itself, so as to further develop their hand, eye coordination during remote operations.

Figure 3: Students beginning the assembly of SeaPerch ROVs from raw material

Figure 4: Fully assembled SeaPerch fleet prior to being submerged

RU: What approach do you apply with your students in regards to the build of the SeaPerch ROVs, and can you expand on the SeaPerch derby where your students test their piloting skills.

Beagen: I utilize a facilitator approach, in the sense that I do not dictate each of their steps during a build. This is due to the fact that we hold many safety talks when working on a project. I equally place emphasis on the following: the importance of teamwork, following directions/procedures, learning and building from your mistakes, and not be shying to ask questions.

When we first began the SeaPerch Derby there was a small learning curve as my students had to how to control their ROVs, however, with further practice they became very well versed pilots. This allowed them to actively compete in the SeaPerch contest consisting of:

Figure 5: Students conducting the heist challenge

·         The hula hoop challenge: where they test their speed and agility by navigating through submerged hula hoops

·        The heist challenge: students have to navigate their ROV trough a latched door, open the door, and then submerge their vehicle below a latched door in an effort to recover payloads of varying weights

·         The payload challenge: students have to ascend and move the payload, as many times possible during a 10 minute span, which is used in the heist challenge back through the door from which they entered during the heist challenge

RU: Do any of your future projects include the use of manipulators or robotic arms that use a master control system to operate in a submerged and/or non-submerged setting.

Figure 6: Programmed ROV successfully locating ball and using gripper to land in predetermined area 

Beagen: That is a great question: I would love to use robotic arms for submerged tasks, as we currently do not use such arms. I do strongly believe this would assist my students in carrying out more complex underwater tasks, while enhancing their remote operation development. Ideally I would like to have Gaudet’s curriculum include the design, fabrication, and testing of arms for underwater use. I must point out that students in the 7th and 8th grade make grippers/arms for their NXT robots.  Furthermore, 8th grade students use Logitech remote controls to function the arms on said robots.  

RU: As an offshore company we have to ask: does the SeaPerch program peek your students’ interest in regards to offshore specific ROV’s?

Beagen: Interfacing with Reaching Ultra’s staff has been key in showing that the work we do in class is very similar to offshore work, from a remote operation standpoint. Additionally, I remind my students that if they enjoy working on STEM projects, they can pursue a degree, or a technical certification, and get paid to play with “big boy/big girl robots” in neat places. Additionally, we conduct after school sea trials in a local pool, to replicate real world projects like those that Reaching Ultra is involved in. We take this one step further, by having students carry out search and rescue exercises.

RU: What program do your students use to program their robots?

Beagen: My students use Lego’s Mindstorms EDU NXT 2.1., which is aptly designed for students in the 7th and 8th grade.  Moreover, this program is based on a graphical language which allows students to drag and drop “blocks” that range from motors to sensors.  Conversely, 8th graders use RobotC which is a text based language based on Standard C.

RU: We think it’s great that your robot designs are created via Computer Aided Design (CAD) programs: what programs do your students utilize? 

Beagen: We use Lego Digital Designer to generate drawings for project builds. Next year we will begin incorporating the use of Autodesk and AutoCAD to increase the complexity of the projects we work on. My excitement for this has resulted in me taking courses on the aforementioned, so as to better guide my students: I cannot wait to see my students’ creative output once they master CAD programs.

Figure 7: Tangible robot based on the CAD drawing shown on computer monitor

RU: On certain projects your students conduct soldering on Printed Circuit Boards (PCB): what has been their reaction to this?

Beagen: Most students have not seen or worked with a soldering iron. Some students were afraid; some thought the soldering iron was a laser.  In the end every student who soldered a PCB and circuit/controllers was beyond excited: you would have thought they won the Powerball. The takeaway of their experience and exposure to soldering electrical components gave them a can do attitude and confidence to work with electrical components and kits.

Figure 8: STEM student diligently soldering PCB

Figure 9: Student finalizing assembly of an electronic switch

RU: As a country, Estonia, in Europe, exposes their students to computer coding in primary school. Do the students that enroll in your class have previous coding experience?

Beagen: As it stands I have not had a student enroll in my classroom with previous coding experience. In spite of this, I think the “Hour of Code” initiative has been key in getting people thinking about the importance of computer coding in a school environment. I have also read great articles about the benefits of teaching coding in elementary school, which I think to be of high benefit

RU: Do you see the benefit of American schools implementing STEM programs in primary school?

Beagen: Absolutely, I read an article the other day that basically stated that (I am summarizing) “Anything that is made, and is not natural, to some extent needed to be designed.” This fully applies to hockey sticks, bicycles, and even offshore rigs, which require talented individuals with specialized skills. My point: If we can grab the attention of students at an early age, we—as a nation—can produce qualified and skilled workers to build, design, and engineer the commercial needs of America in the private and public sector.

RU: What advice do you have for middle schools—domestically and abroad—that are looking to launch a STEM program?

Beagen: My primary advice: passionately promote your curriculum, and dedicate yourself to the development of your students. It is also important to secure funding to enhance a program’s curriculum. I highly advice that teachers and schools apply for government grants, to offset  budgetary cuts and lack of funding that at times affect public schools. I also believe that networking and reaching out to different businesses and individuals is key in providing additional capital: once businesses and individuals see the results produced by your students, this greatly opens funding opportunities.

Figure 10: Self navigating robot traversing through a wooden maze

RU: Where do you see Gaudet’s STEM program 5 years from now?

Beagen: I hope that the program is exponentially better than it is today, and that it motivates my students to continue pursuing the STEM disciplines, while securing exciting high tech, and high skilled jobs. I equally hope to have former students of Gaudet’s STEM program return after graduating from college, or technical school, to mentor the next generation of STEM students. I also see Gaudet continuing to foster relationships with local businesses that rely on the STEM disciplines, as this gives my students the ability to see how their school training can be applied in the workforce.

Joshua Beagan's BIO

Joshua Beagan has 15 years of experience in public education. He started his career as an elementary and middle school science teacher and is now focused in developing students in the STEM disciplines. Beagan has taught professional development classes, in Plate Tectonics and Engineering Practices, at the University of Rhode Island, on statewide level. He has also served as a teacher/mentor at the Naval Undersea Warfare Center NAVSTA (Newport), for the last two years, where he has helped high school students build underwater ROVs. Beagan is currently teaching computer programming, Autodesk Inventor, robotics and engineering practices at Gaudet Middle School.