From SeaPerch to Stennis: Research Physicist Joe Calantoni on the importance of hands-on STEM activities
Joe Calantoni is a research physicist and section head at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, and he also serves as a mentor for the Navy’s outreach programs, including the national STEM curriculum SeaPerch.
The Navy operates underwater robots every day from the heart of NASA’s Stennis Space Center, and Calantoni wants to show students they don’t have to go far in order to study the depths of the sea. SeaPerch is a fundamental tool for sending that message to students and enhancing STEM education.
At its core, SeaPerch is a curriculum that challenges the critical thinking skills of grade school students across the nation. Students design and build remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), otherwise known as SeaPerches. SeaPerch robots are simple ROVS made from PVC pipe and other inexpensive, easily available materials.
SeaPerch not only mimics real-life operational activities conducted by Navy employees at Stennis, but it also encompasses a broad range of scientific and engineering principles, from buoyancy and propulsion to electronics and optics. Science educators learn how to build the SeaPerch robots, then bring their new knowledge to the classroom. SeaPerch is designed to give students hands-on experiences and inspire them to study and pursue careers in robotics, engineering, marine sciences and related fields.
Read on to find out how SeaPerch affects the life of Calantoni every day.
Q: What is one of your most distinguished memories from community outreach in your career?
A: Being at my first SeaPerch competition and being on stage to hand out the trophies… there was nothing more rewarding than that. SeaPerch and how much it has grown is the real standout from all of my community outreach.
Q: How do students get so excited about SeaPerch?
A: It all comes back to the teachers. Students take cues from their teachers; teachers who are genuinely excited about science in the classroom will mentor these students by giving them the tools and the mindset they need to compete in SeaPerch.
I personally had a high school physics teacher that inspired me to go into science. The way he taught and his attitude toward science and discovery really excited the scientist in me.
Q: What is SeaPerch’s largest impact on you?
A: SeaPerch has such a strong relationship to naval operations and the work we do here at Stennis. Personally and professionally, I can visualize the pipeline of work from SeaPerch to real operational work done by the Navy. I also love being able to give back to students. I consider mentoring the next generation of scientists and engineers as an extension of my job.
Q: Why is the communication aspect of SeaPerch or STEM activities/research important?
A: One of my great passions is instilling the importance of communication in all of my students. The science part is important—you have to take the measurements and analyze the data, but if you can’t communicate your results, no one will ever read about them. Without science literacy, you can’t even articulate your vision.
In order to write grant proposals and communicate your discovery to your peers, and even the world, you must be literate in your field.
Q: What do you like to see in a team and in teachers at SeaPerch competitions?
A: I’ve always enjoyed the diversity you see at SeaPerch events. It’s so great to see such a diverse group of students come together in a team environment and perform the teamwork necessary. And then the high-fiving after it’s over—it’s really so rewarding.
Q: What advice would you give a budding scientist?
A: I would tell students that they don’t have to decide on the rest of their life today. Don’t rush. Enjoy broad experiences, take as many internships as you can, travel, meet people… Just soak it all up. At some point, you will figure out what you want to do, and when that happens, you’ll become successful. Enjoying what you do every day is a crucial part of living a happy life.
SeaPerch is an innovative underwater robotics program that equips teachers and students with the resources they need to build an underwater remotely operated vehicle. SeaPerch is a K-12 Educational Outreach program sponsored by the Office of Naval Research (ONR) and managed by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International Foundation (AUVSIF). It is one of the Navy’s signature outreach programs. In eight years, more than 300,000 students and 17,000 teachers and mentors have participated.
SeaPerch Program Impact:
- 90.5% of students said participating in SeaPerch “increased my confidence in my ability to participate in engineering projects or activities”
- 83.7% of students said participating in SeaPerch “made me decide to work harder in school”
- 80% of students in one SeaPerch program are now considering careers in STEM
- As of 2016, there has been a SeaPerch program each of the 50 states, plus Puerto Rico
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