Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary partners with Rotary to foster STEM innovation and entrepreneurial development

June 25, 2019

Deep in concentration, teams of students gathered at the edge of a swimming pool near Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary (GRNMS) in Georgia, remote controls in hand. They carefully guided their homemade underwater robots — more scientifically known as remotely operated vehicles or ROVs — through a series of exercises simulating the tasks that the robots’ real-world counterparts might complete as part of a NOAA mission. Each team hoped that their ROV might be the one that judges would name the 2018 competition winner.

The Aquarisers team from the STEM Academy at Bartlett Middle School received the Duct Tape Award for “outstanding troubleshooting” during a 2018 remotely operated vehicle competition.

In the background, representatives from the regional Rotary district’s leadership team looked on. They had come to the competition last year as spectators to determine whether it could support their organization’s goal of cultivating young leaders and entrepreneurs in Georgia. After seeing the students' innovations firsthand, they were back to see how Rotary might be able to get more involved this year.

Both the Rotary district and the competition host organization, GRNMS, recognized the value of hands-on ROV training in coastal Georgia. The competition’s home city of Savannah is also home to the nation’s fourth-busiest container port. As this port and others increase their use of ROVs for port security, ship inspections, and other maritime needs, a new workforce capable of engineering and operating these devices must rise to meet the demand.

To build up this workforce, GRNMS and Rotary decided to work together to support the ROV competition. The Rotary district now provides funding, mentorship, and capacity-building scholarships to student ROV teams. Each year, they also volunteer some of their 3,000 members to help staff the competition and invite student teams to showcase their ROVs at the annual Rotary District All Clubs Conference. In turn, GRNMS provides local Rotary members with foundational skills development for mentoring local ROV teams and exciting new connections with schools across the region. 

By engaging Rotarians in this ROV competition, the Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary helps build the future blue economy workforce while simultaneously increasing ocean awareness among one of America’s most active service organizations.

Back by the pool at the 2018 competition, the Rotarians watched as North Paulding High School’s underwater robotics club was named this year’s champion. While only this team moved on to the international competition, all competitors walked away more prepared to tackle the challenges the maritime industry might face in the future.

"To properly protect marine life and special areas like Gray's Reef, we need tools to help us explore and understand the mysteries of the ocean,” said former GRNMS superintendent Sarah Fangman. “These students — future engineers and scientists — will create the next generation of instruments used at NOAA, NASA, and the maritime industries."

This story was originally published in the Fiscal Year 2018 NOAA Education Accomplishments Report.