HARLINGEN — The network of PVC pipe looked harmless enough.

The underwater robot sat on the table, static and ambivalent, unaware of its surroundings.

However, it had the power to change lives, and its creators were feeling that power yesterday at the U.S. Navy SeaPerch Challenge at HESTEC.

The students from Harlingen High School showed off exactly what they could do by taking first place in the event with a robot they’d worked with for months.

“We put in a lot of hard work every day, we dedicated Saturdays,” said Vivian Lopez, 17, a senior and president of the engineering club sponsored by Paul Tenison.

The HHS team was one of 33 from throughout the Valley to compete in this year’s SeaPerch.

The event was held at the Harlingen school district’s Aquatic Center, 315 N. 77 Sunshine Strip.

It was intended to engage students in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields.

The SeaPerch is part of HESTEC – Hispanic Engineering, Science, and Technology (HESTEC) Week, in which the University of Texas – Rio Grande Valley promotes the STEM professions locally.

Javier Garcia, STEM director for the Office of Community Relations for UTRGV, said SeaPerch is an important way to generate interest in STEM subjects among local students.

“It helps them interact with university professors and Navy personnel,” Garcia said. “We also had United Launch Alliance. They see them out there and they say, ‘Hey, I can do that, too.’”

The event consisted of the obstacle course and the finesse course, Tenison said. In the obstacle course they had to maneuver through hoops. It was a timed race.

The finesse course required students to manipulate objects such as rings, rods, and targets.

“They were picking them up and placing them in a certain location,” Tenison said.

He commended his students for doing so well.

“We put in a lot of hours after school,” he said. “We spent a lot of time practicing in the pool.”

This was the first year Dr. Abraham P. Cano Academy participated in SeaPerch.

“Everybody’s just trying different designs, learning by trial and error,” said Justin Evans, teacher and coach of Cano’s Raven Robots.

His students seemed pretty fired up over the new challenge.

“I got to do a lot,” said Diamond Ortega, 14. “I did the wiring. It was actually probably easy. Blue to the left, orange to the middle. I had to solder the wiring.”

In order to protect the motor from water, she filled its container with wax. She then placed the motor inside and filled in more wax.

Tatyana Moore, 14, also enjoyed the process with the Ravens.

“We actually got to create something,” she said.

The Tigersharks from San Isidro – who took third place – had to scramble at the last minute because no one would give them the correct information about the challenge.

“We had to pick up some wire and PVC pieces,” said Orlando Perez, 17. “At the last minute we were able to do some modifications.”

They gestured toward a piece of PVC sticking out the back they’d had to heat up to create a hook.

“If we had known, we could have improvised even more,” Orlando said.

Early College High School surprised themselves by coming in second place even though this was the first year they’d competed.

“We took 29 zipties and duct-taped them together,” said Daniella Roberts, 17, a senior.

“We improvised a lot,” added James Galvan, 17, also an ECHS senior.

The SeaPerch event used robotics as a way to teach innovation. Ironic since the word robotic conveys monotonous movements, unvarying, unchanging and mindless. To the contrary, underwater robots teach students how to use science to think creatively.

What is SeaPerch?

It is an innovative underwater robotics program that equips teachers and students with the resources they need to build an underwater Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV).

The SeaPerch Program provides students with the opportunity to learn about robotics, engineering, science, and mathematics (STEM) while building an underwater ROV as part of a science and engineering technology curriculum.