This summer, 75 high school students from 27 schools are spending three weeks learning skills relevant to engineering as part of the Undersea Technology Apprentice Program (UTAP) held at the Naval Undersea Warfare Center (NUWC) Division Newport.
The internship program asks students to construct an underwater vehicle that can read instructions underwater and then pick up an object based off of those directions. With the help of scientists and engineers, the students learn what it is like to build, create and solve problems through engineering.
“What’s nice about this is they’re getting electrical, mechanical, physics, computer science – a whole bunch of different types of engineering exposure in a short period and more of a real-world working environment,” said Candida Desjardins, director of NUWC Newport’s Educational Outreach. “They have a budget, they have a tight deadline, and they have to think outside the box.”
Desjardins said instructors also incorporate real-world obstacles when deemed necessary as the students test the operability of their underwater vehicles. Instructors in the annual summer program have done everything from shaking the water tank, covering it to simulate darkness and putting dirt in it.
“Our new favorite twist is we actually put a bubble curtain inside the tank, which gives students a little bit of current that they have to deal with, and it’s a lot harder to read through the bubbles,” said Desjardins, who coordinates UTAP along with Dr. John DiCecco, of the Undersea Warfare Weapons, Vehicles and Defensive Systems Department. “When you are reading something you have to hold the vehicle steady and you have to be able to hover, so it’s a whole bunch of different variables.”
Scott Dickison, a biology teacher at Rogers High School in Newport, has had a number of students come through the UTAP and SeaPerch programs in the past 16 years. While recently checking on some of his students, Dickison praised the program.
“I love it. It’s hands on and it really builds skills students may not have much experience in,” Dickison said. “They have to engineer, they have to think and they have to commit.
“They make it middle school level but also challenging enough for upper-level kids, so they can grow with the program.”
One of those students, Jack Gomes, a rising senior at Rogers, said he had some experience with robotics before doing UTAP. He noted that his group’s biggest challenge was figuring out how to get its vehicle to resurface.
“It’s been fun because I did robotics in sixth or seventh grade, and then I didn’t do it again because I was busy with sports,” Gomes said. “This is fun because I get to try again, and it’s really fun to keep testing and modifying.”
Victoria Hathaway, an electrical engineer at NUWC Newport’s Undersea Warfare Weapons, Vehicles and Defensive Systems Department, has seen firsthand how the program can lead to a career in engineering.
“I had a really good experience in the program,” Hathaway, who started in UTAP as a rising junior at New Bedford High School in 2012, said. “I didn’t know anything about engineering at all.
“The application says if you like math and science, join up. I had no idea what I wanted to do yet, but then I tried it, and it kind of just clicked for me. I was like, ‘that’s what I want to do when I grow up.’”
She first heard about UTAP through announcements made at her high school during her sophomore year and elected to apply. She participated in the program for three summers, and after graduating high school in 2014 sought out other ways to remain involved at NUWC Newport.
“After I finished UTAP, I asked if there are any college programs,” Hathaway said. “The following summer I did the Naval Research Enterprise Internship Program (NREIP). I did that in the summers of 2015 and 2016, and after that I did the Pathways 640, so this way I could try to get into NUWC officially.”
That opportunity came after Hathaway graduated from UMass-Dartmouth with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in May. She was hired soon after and works on torpedo defense systems.
“It’s been an honor to watch a student like Victoria grow from a young high school student who wasn’t sure what to pursue in school to a college graduate with a degree in electrical engineering,” Desjardins said. “She works hard and is driven to a dream — it’s why what we do in outreach is so important.”
Hathaway also has had “just a little bit of an influence” in recruiting another participant for UTAP, she noted with a laugh. Her younger brother, Dylan, will be a freshman at UMass-Dartmouth in the fall and this year participated in a UTAP session at Newport from June 25 to July 13.
“She went ahead and introduced me to Candida right from the beginning,” Dylan Hathaway said. “I would love to work here because the people are great and it’s been a great experience.”
Two more sessions of UTAP will be held from July 16 to Aug. 3 and from Aug. 6-24. The session Hathaway and Gomes attended was exclusively for students from schools that have partnership agreements with NUWC Newport. Those schools are Greater New Bedford Vocational Technical High School; Diman Regional Vocational Technical High School; Dartmouth High School; New Bedford; and Rogers.
Applications for the annual program are posted on NUWC Newport’s website in mid-February at: http://www.navsea.navy.mil/Home/Warfare-Centers/NUWC-Newport/Career-Opportunities/Internships/.
NUWC Division Newport, part of NAVSEA, is one of two divisions of the Naval Undersea Warfare Center. NUWC Division Newport’s mission is to provide research, development, test and evaluation, engineering and fleet support for submarines, autonomous underwater systems, undersea offensive and defensive weapons systems, and countermeasures. NUWC’s other division is located in Keyport, Wash.