Can eighth-graders really build robots? You betcha.

For the last few weeks, 56 eighth-graders at S.E. Gross Middle School in Brookfield and 22 eighth-graders from Komarek School in North Riverside have built robots that can maneuver underwater.

The robots were built mainly with Legos, but some were outfitted with pennies to weigh them down so they would sink. The students programmed hand-held control pads to direct their creations.

Last Tuesday, the two groups of eighth-graders met at Gross School for a scientific challenge as they put their ‘bots to the test. They had to maneuver their mechanical midgets in a Figure-8 pattern around two obstacles in a shallow pool of water.

This is called “waterbotics,” a curriculum developed in New Jersey to encourage learning in the areas of science, technology, engineering and math.

Komarek eighth-grade science teacher Diane Vesecky and Gross advanced math teacher Jon Burke learned about the waterbotics curriculum at a summer workshop held at Triton College. They began talking and decided it would be fun and motivating for their students to have a competition this year after they designed, constructed, and programmed their robots.

“I thought it would be a good project for these kids,” Burke said.

Vesecky agreed.

“There’s a lot of topics that we cover that actually fit in directly with this project,” Vesecky said. “Gears, as an example, stability, momentum. They learn about motion, torque. It’s a great hands-on project because all those topics are taught in our eighth-grade science curriculum.”

The teachers divided their students into teams of 4-5 kids. At Komarek, the kids chose their teammates. At Gross, Burke picked the team’s members. Komarek has six teams and Gross had 10 teams.

The teams built their robots out of Legos and a few other components. They learned some basic computer programming that comes with the waterbotics curriculum to program a controller that was connected to the robots by a string.

After some preliminary challenges at their own schools the students had a chance to figure out what worked and what didn’t work and made adjustments to their designs.

Last Tuesday they met in the courtyard at Gross for the final challenge.

Students had to maneuver their robots in a figure eight pattern around two obstacles in a shallow pool of water. First they did it on the surface of the water. Then they added a propeller and had to maneuver their robots under water.

Some teams were able to maneuver their robot quickly around the obstacles. Others had more trouble and sometimes needed a helping hand from Burke to complete the Figure 8 and get around the obstacles. But they all eventually made it.

The winners were two teams from Gross who tied with the fastest submerged time of 21 seconds. Some teams took a little more than two minutes.

The winning team members were Allison Lelivelt, Molly Roman, Rapha Siordia and Anthony Landahl on one team and Griffin Sventy, Patrick Goodwin, Derrick Diaz and Nick Rogoz on the other.

No word if they were going to have a faceoff to break the tie.

The students said they had fun and learned a lot.

“First of all you get to make a boat that goes really fast and you’re having a competition with another school,” Landahl said.

Trial and error and working together were the keys to success, the winners said.

“It takes a lot of testing,” Sventy noted. “We learned a lot about engineering.”

Lelivelt agreed.

“You get to learn multiple things while doing it,” she said. “It’s like being an engineer.”