Building subs and the science-minded

Local teens launch program to supplement STEM training in classroom

Suppose you walk into your first high school science class and “you’re really excited about it,” says Tanvi Rane, 17 of Interlake High School.

“But then the teacher asks ‘what’s the difference between a manipulated variable and a responding variable?’ or something of that nature,” Rane continues. “Either you, or the person next to you realizes that there is some disconnect there – something you should have learned in middle school, that you don’t know.”

SciSub, she explains, is committed to bridging that gap. Composed of Rane and her peers, Jia Wen Chan and CJ Kindel, high school seniors at Interlake and Eastside Catholic respectively, the team wants to foster a love for the STEM fields beyond the classroom. This October, SciSub will host its first after-school pilot program, teaching a group of six to build remotely operated underwater vehicles (ROVs).

They speculate that disconnect created in high school science classes keeps many students from further pursuing the field. The three say they’ve overcome such barriers of entry and think a hands-on curriculum could do the same for their peers.

“When you think about it, babies learn experimentally – does the square block fit through the circular hole? I think we’re capitalizing on that,” explained Chan. “People lose that as they get older. What we’re doing with SciSub is we’re letting them use that curiosity along with learning the formal terms, all the parts of the scientific process without necessarily having to be in a formal environment.”

The three talk excitedly as they point to a picture of a model sub they’ve called Jorge. Designs are based on those of MIT’s SeaPerch program, but have been tweaked and improved upon, says Kindel. He demonstrates how the joints have been made using sliced PVC pipe. Sensors made of film canisters are strapped to the structure and when dropped in a body of water could measure such things as turbidity, depth and other elements so that students aren’t just constructing subs, but using them to experiment and collect data. The end result is a sort of oblong cube with pool noodles used as floaties.

SciSub will take students through the scientific process, even encouraging them to write a lab report so they can understand the weaknesses of their data and where their conclusions came from.

“We went into this with very little prior knowledge,” says Rane, who had taken one programming class, but admitted to feeling intimated by such student groups as the robotics club. “We’ve been doing this all summer, really acquainting ourselves with what we’re trying to do, and we’ve been able to do it in part thanks to schooling, but also because of the people around us.”

SciSub operates out of a space called StudentRND, a technology development center for high school and college students in a hive of rooms in the Bel-Red neighborhood. The idea for SciSub first started percolating almost a year ago. Chan, Kindel and Rane met through a summer program at the center and have spent much of the last couple months brainstorming a curriculum, testing their own scientific process and fundraising – it’ll take $1,000 to run the pilot this fall.

“If you look at most elementary and middle school classes it’s not really tech-based learning,” said Kindel, whose dad worked in the tech field for Microsoft and later Amazon. He grew up building computers and shadowing his dad, but hopes to make the curriculum accessible even for those with less entrenched knowledge.

“I work as a tutor as well,” said Chan, “and when you can get a kid to latch onto something, that’s when it becomes a lot of fun, you get to see them work it out.”

If successful, the three will expand their class sizes and programming into the spring. Next fall, they’re off to college. All three say they’d like to go into engineering, though what field they aren’t sure of yet.

“For me I definitely want to do something engineering-related. For a while I didn’t want to go into engineering, because so many people I knew were. But after this experience…[I see] there’s a reason so many people do,” said Rane. “It’s fun and it gives you a sense of accomplishment.”

“That’s one thing we hope to equip students with,” added Chan. “that sense of ‘I can do anything.'”