Atlantis underwater robotics group moves on to inspire, teach the next generation

Atlantis ROV is moving on and expanding from its days as an underwater robotics team.

Attack of the Evil Peacocks members watch the Deepsy Dinos team flying their ROV in the pool at Atlantis STEaM in St. Peter’s Lutheran Church. Attack of the Evil Peacocks are

Attack of the Evil Peacocks members watch the Deepsy Dinos team flying their ROV in the pool at Atlantis STEaM in St. Peter’s Lutheran Church. Attack of the Evil Peacocks are

Atlantis ROV is moving on and expanding from its days as an underwater robotics team.

Make no mistake, underwater remotely operated vehicles (ROV) are still part and parcel of what Atlantis, the South Whidbey robotics club, is all about. But the team was already transforming from solely a competitive unit into one that educated and inspired others to pursue the hands-on world of science through ROVs.

Two of its core members from the international championship team in 2014 remain; the others graduated and are off pursuing college and secondary education. The new focus, the new challenge, the new competition for Atlantis is getting future generations engaged in science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics (STEAM). The crew has adopted that new acronym at the end of its name: Atlantis STEaM.

“This is part of paying it forward and giving back to the next generation of champion underwater robotics kids,” said mother and program mentor Ashley McConnaughey, whose daughters Hannah and Haley helped found Atlantis as an underwater robotics team five years ago. Ben Watanabe / The Record | Sophia Paczinsky, a 12-year-old on the Atlantis STEAM middle school team, tinkers with wire management for her underwater bot.

Atlantis STEaM offered three courses through the South Whidbey Parks and Recreation District this fall. Two were the same intro to underwater robotics class, just for different age ranges. The other was STEaM Sisters, designed specifically for girls. All of those are likely to continue through the winter season via the parks district, which handles the registration and invoicing and otherwise lets the Atlantis minds manage their own affairs.

“This is the first time we’ve done lengthy classes,” McConnaughey said. “We feel sort of bad even charging for them, but there’s no way we can buy the materials or the tools.”

The recent quarter concluded Dec. 1 with a fly day for the students to put their bots in the water and pilot them. Ben Watanabe / The Record | Slater Canright, an 11-year-old member of the Atlantis STEaM robotics class team Attack of the Evil Peacocks, checks propeller attachments during the final day of the introduction to underwater robotics session.

After plenty of on-the-spot replacements, the first bot piloted by Macie Vande Werfhorst darted through the pool. As soon as it moved, smiles washed over the crowd’s faces, with the children barely tall enough to peer over the pool’s lip shrieking and oohing with delight.

Getting future generations interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) careers is the main goal for Atlantis STEaM. Their mission follows in the steps of educators and industry leaders across the United States who are pushing to see more girls and women pursue careers and degrees in the STEM fields. According to statistics cited by the Office of the President of the United States, only 24 percent of engineering and science positions were held by women in 2009.

“If only 17 percent of all of the brains available are working to solve the world’s problems, you’re leaving a third of all of the discoveries and innovations and opportunities to create change for good on the table,” McConnaughey said. “You haven’t even begun to tap the potential of what can be.”

During a previous STEaM Sisters day in November, McConnaughey had them watch a short video interview with Katherine Johnson, a NASA physicist who worked on the Apollo 11 mission to the moon.

“If you haven’t heard about Katherine Johnson, it’s up to us to tell each other,” McConnaughey said.

On Tuesday afternoon, the first round of educational outreach concluded with the successful flights of a few underwater bots by teams of elementary and middle-school age students. Dubbed “fly day” by the ladies of Atlantis — McConnaughey, 16-year-old Haley McConnaughey and 16-year-old Annika Hustad — the students drilled into the PVC frames of their bots to let out air. Doing so helped achieve neutral buoyancy, an important factor when piloting a bot through the water, even when that water is only a few feet deep in a six-foot-diameter kid pool.

One of Atlantis’ new members, 18-year-old Sasha Hagen, was busy soldering the control boards to the motor control. Hustad, needing to walk to the other side of a long room in the basement of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Clinton, asked the group of two girls she was working with for a few seconds. They counted: 1, 2, 3. She wasn’t done yet and instead devised a math problem to keep them busy.

No games, no down time. Homework.

“Engineering should be as exciting as football,” Ashley McConnaughey said as she helped a team of three boys drill holes into their PVC frame.

So it was on Tuesday. After a late shipment of supplies, Atlantis found itself behind schedule and a bit frantic as the students and instructors tried to ready the bots for their first underwater flights.

First, there was a problem with the underwater camera’s monitor. A new screen was brought down from the main area of the church and, after some tinkering, it displayed the underwater action for a huddled crowd of children and parents. The group was eager for a glimpse of the bot, which was attempting to grab a sunken object with a loop — relatively simple in the world of underwater robotics, but exceedingly complex to the uninitiated.

Next, the car battery used to power the ROV’s motors was unresponsive. A different backup battery was brought in, connected and operated properly, powering the bot for its first flight by student Macie.

“Everyone was running around being an engineer,” McConnaughey said.

Winter Atlantis STEaM classes begin in January and continue into March. Registration can be done online through Anyone interested in competing in the robotics events can email or

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