When the Mount Laurel School District wanted to start a new middle-school program a few years ago in STEM – science, technology, engineering and math – teacher Maureen Barrett was intrigued.

Barrett, who was an eighth-grade life sciences teacher, as well as an avid scuba diver, had seen a program on underwater robots during a marine educators conference, and “kept it on the back burner of something I’d like to do.”

The teacher submitted a proposal for an elective course on ocean exploration, and her idea was selected.

Almost three years after the STEM program began at Harrington Middle School in 2011, the class, which teaches scientific and engineering concepts by having seventh-graders build and use underwater robots, has become extremely popular with students and parents.

The ocean exploration course, which began as an elective, is now part of the regular schedule for all seventh-graders. An after-school club, the Sea Perch Team Club, competes in underwater robotics competitions, taking students to Rowan University, the University of Southern Mississippi and elsewhere. An Ocean Exploration Night for families is in the planning stages at the middle school.

The program was also recognized by the New Jersey School Boards Association in its 2013 School Leader Awards.

“What’s really great is the students are using a lot of tools. They’re building the control box from scratch, stripping wires and crimping and completing the circuit, putting in toggle switches. They’re learning to work with each other and collaborate, and they’re learning basic engineering principals,” Barrett said. “It’s not just, build a robot and play in the pool.”

The class gives kids a taste of what it really feels like to be an engineer or scientist.

Students collaborate in teams of four to brainstorm and design ROVs – Remotely Operated Vehicles – using the engineering design process. They construct their robots from PVC pipe, wiring and assorted hardware. Using the robots in an 8-by-12-foot portable pool, they then perform underwater tasks like capping a miniature well, simulating the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

“I wasn’t sure it would actually work in the water,” said one student in the end-of-class assessment. “It seems like only engineers do this type of stuff, not middle-school students.”

The students utilize other underwater robots called “Sea Perch” to do jobs such as collecting “crabs” made of PVC pipe and pipe cleaners. Students document their work throughout, in writing and a video journal, and do oral presentations.

Learning opportunities go beyond the classroom. Students hear from guest speakers from the Philadelphia Naval Yard and industry; take field trips; and discuss current events in which underwater technology is used, such as the search for the missing Malaysian jetliner earlier this year. An autonomous underwater vehicle was employed in that search effort.

“They had to do research on not just that, but where else are (underwater vehicles) used?” Barrett said. “We’re building this cool little thing in class, but this is real life. This is how we’re exploring our oceans.”

Teamwork plays a big part in the course. Often that draws the most pride from kids.

“I’m most proud of our group,” wrote one student. “I’m proud of our group because we worked together and listened to what each other had to say.”

Mount Laurel Schools Superintendent Dr. Antoinette Rath said the program was so well-received “it was apparent we had to do more.”

The district expanded STEM offerings to fifth through eighth grades, on topics such as LEGO robotics and the environment. A STEAM course – science, technology, engineering, arts and math, which brings arts in as well – was also added in middle school.

Corporate donations from partners such as Lockheed Martin and The Sallie Mae Fund, and grants from NJAET – the New Jersey Association for Educational Technology – and the Mount Laurel Public Education Fund, have provided support.

“These courses continue to be highly sought after,” Dr. Rath said, “and have opened new doors for many of our students.”

NJSBA’s School Leader Awards judge programs based on innovation, how well they meet student needs, the relationship of the program to the state’s curriculum standards, and program results.