Harrington Middle School students demonstrate their underwater robots with two community members – dressed as Civil War re-enactors – during a fall festival in Mount Laurel.

At Harrington Middle School, learning takes place under the sea. Students there are using ocean exploration to learn about science, technology, engineering and math, and get a taste of what it feels like to be an engineer or scientist.

A few years ago, the Mount Laurel district wanted to start a new middle-school program in STEM – science, technology, engineering and math. Teacher Maureen Barrett, who is an avid scuba diver, proposed a program in which students would build and use underwater robots. The idea was selected, and the underwater STEM program was born.

Students collaborate in teams of four to brainstorm and design ROVs – Remotely Operated Vehicles – using the engineering design process. They build robots from PVC pipe, wiring and assorted hardware. In 8-by-12-foot portable pool, the student-controlled robots perform underwater tasks, such as capping a miniature well, simulating the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The students also utilize another type of underwater robot, called “Sea Perch,” for tasks such as collecting “crabs” made of PVC pipe and pipe cleaners. They document their work in writing and a video journal, and make oral presentations.

The course, which began as an elective, is now part of the regular schedule for students. An after-school club, the Sea Perch Team Club, competes in underwater robotics competitions at Rowan University, the University of Southern Mississippi and elsewhere. Students also hear from guest speakers; take field trips; and discuss current events involving underwater technology.

Mount Laurel Schools Superintendent Dr. Antoinette Rath said the STEM program was so well-received, “it was apparent we had to do more.” The district expanded STEM offerings to the 5th- through 8th grades on topics such as LEGO robotics and the environment. In addition, STEAM program – which also focuses on the arts – was instituted in the middle school.

Corporate donations from partners such as Lockheed Martin and The Sallie Mae Fund, and grants from NJAET – the New Jersey Association for Educational Technology – and the Mount Laurel Public Education Fund, have provided support.


Contact: Dr. Sharon Vitella, Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment,

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A 2013 NJSBA School Leader Award winner