An underwater robotics course, and other innovative teaching efforts in Gulf District Schools, was fueled last week through a donation from the Duke Energy Foundation.

Duke provided a $12,000 grant to the Education Foundation of Gulf County, Inc., a grant that assists in expanding the instructional offerings in the public schools.

In particular, SeaPerch, an underwater robotics course available to eighth-graders at Port St. Joe Jr./Sr. High School.

“There is not anything like (it) in the counties we serve,” said Danny Collins, regional representative for Duke Energy, of the robotics course.

Duke Energy provided a similar amount last year.

And in effect, the donation was $24,000.

The Education Foundation of Gulf County is a member of the Consortium of Florida Education Foundations.

That foundation manages state match dollars, funded by the Florida Legislature and based on district student enrollment.

The local foundation must raise the equivalent, which each year is about $12,000, in private donations to be eligible for the state match money, said teacher Donna Thompson.

This year, donations from Duke Energy and the Tapper Foundation exceeded the required match.

SeaPerch is sponsored by the Office of Naval Research and teaches students how to design and build an ROV, or underwater Remotely Operated Vehicle.

The major hurdle, or only hurdle, rather, that school has encountered is how to keep class-sizes manageable.

The curriculum adheres to a straightforward idea; students learn better by doing, according to the grant application submitted by Thompson.

Working in teams, students build an ROV from a kit of low-cost, easily-accessible parts, the curriculum teaching the STEM quadrangle, science, technology, engineering and math behind a focus on marine engineering.

Grant funds purchase everything required, including the robotic kits and program materials.

In addition to learning engineering concepts, the students will also learn about design skills, problem-solving and teamwork.

“I like doing this kind of stuff instead than book work,” said student Dakota Deathridge.

Toss in lessons that touch on ship and submarine design, buoyancy and displacement, propulsion, vectors, electricity/circuits and switches, waterproofing, depth measurement, physics in motion and the curriculum checks many of the boxes to provide, pardon the pun, out-of-the-box learning.

Students will also learn soldering and tool safety, ergonomics and light while constructing their ROVs.

“Overall, I think the girls in particular were exposed to different skills, tasks that they have never tried,” said teacher Becky Lacour, noting cutting and soldering metal, drilling, and stripping wires.

Erica Ramsey was singled out as the top solder-er in the class by Lacour.

“Most seemed to really enjoy and were better and were more interested in it than the boys,” Lacour added.

Once students have constructed their ROV, the vehicles are tested, students working together to improve designs and will also deploy them on missions.

To assert the course has real-life applications would be tarrying in understatement.

In addition to exposing students to STEM ideas, in a hands-on environment, students have interaction with professionals in the STEM fields and learn and explore the potential of STEM careers.

“The program will also support the demand for STEM-educated workers which continues to grow exponentially each year,” Thompson wrote in the grant summary.

The students even begin to develop reading and writing skills for a STEM career, keeping an engineering notebook, conducting and documenting their experiments, writing STEM-based reports and working as a team to build an ROV and provide presentation on their project.

In addition, the course aligns with national education standards for science.

The course will be offered to all Port St. Joe eighth-graders during the coming school year, but, in the application, Thompson noted that with 96 students currently enrolled in that grade, the challenge will be maintaining class size.

That could require a co-teaching classroom with a pair of instructors to accommodate “the learning needs of diverse learners and students with disabilities.”

But, as Thompson noted, SeaPerch is just one of the many innovative programs made possible through the Education Foundation.

Each year, the foundation manages a blind, competitive system in which teachers and principals can apply for grants to fund various educational initiatives.

The initiatives depend on who applies and is awarded dollars; last year seven programs were funded.

This year, Thompson said, the foundation hopes to award approximately $17,000 in grant funding; the deadline for teachers or principals to apply is Oct. 1.