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From marshmallows to Maryland: Union Grove high-schoolers impress at international engineering tournament

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UNION GROVE — It was nearly time to compete, and Kayla Knudtson and Nataly Schoening felt anxious. To ease the tension, they rattled off as many types of beans as they could: Green. String. Garbanzo. Kidney. Whatever came to mind.

“Naming off all the beans just magically helps us do better,” Knudtson said with a laugh.

That unique practice seemed to help. Knudtson and Schoening took eighth place out of 137 high school teams from around the world at the Seaperch International Underwater Remotely Operated Vehicle Tournament.

Knudtson and Schoening’s presentation entailed a seven-minute underwater challenge with the remote vehicle they designed and three minutes of questions. In seven minutes, they had to complete a timed obstacle course and gain points on a mission task course.

Knudtson and Schoening, under the team name PVC Space Pirates, were the final team to present in-person and to a global audience watching via livestream. Their nervous anticipation grew as time went on, but the students relied on their friendship and felt confident in their abilities.

“I felt like we had some shoes to fill, but overall we flowed really nicely with each other and everything went smoothly,” Knudtson said. “We were able to be like, ‘We got this.’”

The presentation occurred June 4 at a pool at the University of Maryland and was two years in the making. Knudtson and Schoening, who just finished their senior years at Union Grove High School, qualified for the international tournament in 2020, but it was canceled each of the past two years because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

PVC Space Pirates was one of two teams to compete in Maryland from Union Grove High School after both teams qualified at a regional competition in March.

Erik Wolbach, engineering and robotics teacher at Union Grove High School, said Knudtson and Schoening’s eighth-place finish was impressive because they did not have anything resembling a full-size pool to practice in. Knudtson and Schoening tested the remote underwater vehicle, which they worked on for seven months, in a small tank at a shed outside the high school.

Union Grove robot team 6 (June 2022).png

An underwater photo of the Union Grove High School Team Leviathan navigating through the mission course at the Seaperch International Underwater Remotely Operated Vehicle Tournament in Maryland. The team named their vehicle “Larry.”

“For them to go there not having used a pool since regionals … and actually do as well as they did is a tribute to their engineering,” said Wolbach, who coached both teams and traveled to Maryland with the students.

Union Grove robot team 3 (June 2022)

Team Leviathan from Union Grove High School placed 38th at the Seaperch International Underwater Remotely Operated Vehicle Tournament in Maryland in early June. From left to right are sophomore Laurel Anderson and junior Melissa Haigh.

Melissa Haigh, who just completed her junior year, was half of the other Union Grove team in Maryland. The duo, named Team Leviathan, placed 38th in the international tournament. It was Haigh’s first year working on a remote vehicle, and she enjoyed the process.

“It’s pretty unknown in this area to do Seaperch,” Haigh said. “But it’s crazy to see how many kids were there … It’s bigger than just our school,” which has a yearly enrollment of around 1,525.

High schoolers from 26 countries and four continents competed in Maryland, and Haigh said she enjoyed seeing the passion from students around the globe.

Students designed and constructed the underwater vehicles using materials in a kit that included PVC pipe, pool noodles, three motors and a controller.

According to Wolbach, they needed to “construct, solder and waterproof the motors, which are connected to a controller via spliced internet cable.” Students could also spend an additional $25 constructing the vehicle.

Starting in November, the Union Grove high-schoolers worked for about 45 minutes each week on the vehicles, coming up with designs that conformed to size guidelines. Each team also made a five-minute video of their engineering design process.

In addition to designing the vehicles, Haigh, Knudtson and Schoening helped start something that could benefit future students.

This past school year, Wolbach asked the students to join the Society of Women Engineers, to which he and his wife belong. They agreed and founded a local SWE chapter, making UGHS one of seven high schools in the state to do so, according to Wolbach.

Haigh, who is interested in civil engineering, enjoyed being part of SWE. She is often the only girl in robotics or engineering courses and hopes the school chapter can raise awareness for young women interested in the field.

Knudtson agreed. “With engineering, there’s not always as much equality … especially with women.”

Union Grove robot team 2 (June 2022)

Union Grove High School students competed in early June at the Seaperch International Underwater Remotely Operated Vehicle Tournament in Maryland. From left to right are sophomore Laurel Anderson, junior Melissa Haigh, senior Nataly Schoening and senior Kayla Knudtson. Students designed and constructed the underwater vehicles using materials in a kit that included PVC pipe, pool noodles, three motors and a controller.

Knudtson, who plans to study electrical engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, said the experience working with remote-operated vehicles played a role in that decision.

“I found that I really do like the electronics side of things,” Knudtson said.

Schoening will attend the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design and plans to study either communication design or interior architecture and design. She enjoyed the problem-solving aspects of remote vehicles.

“By going into arts, I feel like having that background of being able to problem-solve will be beneficial,” Schoening said.

Indeed, Knudtson and Schoening enjoyed the gradual process of improving the vehicle over several months.

Wolbach enjoyed listening to the students brainstorm ideas for the vehicle design. He appreciated their enthusiasm and wanted to provide a chance for it to flourish.

“I’ve tried to give them opportunities to do new and bigger and different things, and they’ve always impressed me with what they came up with,” Wolbach said. “That’s part of my goal, is to open up opportunities for kids and let them be themselves.”

Wolbach remembered the first project Knudtson and Schoening built as freshmen, a device that launched a marshmallow.

“You could tell they were passionate right away,” Wolbach said.

The next few years involved an evolution from marshmallows to Maryland, and the work will benefit the career paths of Knudtson and Schoening. With the new Society of Women Engineers chapter, more students could follow in their footsteps.


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Ryan Patterson joined The Journal Times in May 2022 as an education and general assignment reporter. He previously worked at newspapers in Sheridan, Wyoming, and Eau Claire, Wisconsin.

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