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Students Race Pedal-Powered Subs

Usually the 32,000-foot-long David Taylor Model Basin is reserved for testing state-of-the-art submarines and boats.

But last week, the 22-foot-deep tank, part of the Naval Surface Warfare Center, Carderock Division, played host to experimental subs built by students instead of Navy shipbuilders.

The 10th International Submarine Races (ISR) drew 21 college and a few high school teams from around the world to see whose 10- to 16-foot-long crafts would impress the judges and win - for innovation, speed, cost-effectiveness and best use of composite materials.

The subs were propelled by one or two students clad in scuba gear, who climbed inside the submarines and pedaled.

Though the competition is technically a race, teams sent their subs down the course - which is as long as 10 football fields - one at a time, as many times as they wanted.

About 300 people - team members, families and advisers - watched the submarines pass by on monitors that had been hooked up to underwater cameras. Competitors cheered each boat as it crossed the finish line.

Rae Puntenney, a senior studying mechanical engineering at the University of Washington, was ready to put her submarine to the test.

But she and her team, who drove cross-country from Seattle, arrived with an unfinished craft.

They lost valuable time in the water when their boat still hadn't made a run through the course by the third day of the week-long competition.

As her teammates tinkered, Puntenney said that the boat, which mimics the shape of a squid, could be "very competitive."

"We've got some great designs. It's just getting it done," she says.

A friendly competition

Pat Barton, a high school guidance counselor, has been to the competition almost every year since it started in 1989. She and her husband volunteer with a team from Hernando County Schools in Springhill, Fla.

The competition helps get high school students "enthused about engineering" in an environment that is competitive yet friendly, she says.

"One of the things I love about this competition is, unlike a lot of things, everybody wants to win, but no one will win at the expense of anyone else," she says.

Curtis Weaver is one of Barton's students and pilot of Hernando's submarine. The recent high school graduate says his team has been working in and outside school for months to get their boat above 6 knots (about 7 mph).

"On weekends a lot of times we go into Weeki Wachee Springs (State Park) right down the road," Weaver says. "We practice and figure out what's wrong and go back and fix it."

Hands-on experience

Brian Green, a mechanical engineering student going into his fifth year at the University of Florida-Gainesville, sat under his team's tent outside the basin while they made some repairs.

He said his nine-person team, dressed in matching University of Florida polo shirts, has been working on the boat since their last appearance at the competition two years ago.

Though his team isn't getting course credit for participating, Green says designing and building the submarine gave them valuable experience.

"What drove us back here was the hands-on interaction we get with our degrees," he says.

In a tent not far from Green's, Stephen Curtis, a rising senior studying mechanical engineering at the University of Michigan, used some yellow spray paint to emblazon "Michigan" across his team's blue boat.

Curtis says he decided to join his school's team because "it's great experience and a great résumé builder."

"The underwater environment poses just a completely unique set of design challenges, so it stretches you as a designer and an engineer to build something that makes you think of things in a whole different perspective," he says.

Encouraging students to be innovative is exactly the point of the competition, says ISR executive director Nancy Hussey. Hussey also is director of the non-profit group that sponsors the races, the Foundation for Underwater Research and Education.

When students are in the classroom, she says, "they get all the theoretical knowledge and they absorb it and take all their tests, but they don't have the chance to apply it to the real-world environment."

Hussey notes that just making it to the competition is an accomplishment in itself.

But some teams were more successful than others. The submarines taking top honors this year came from the Ecole de Technologie Supérieure in Quebec, Florida Atlantic University's Dania Beach campus, and the team from Hernando County, Fla.

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