IPSWICH (CBS) -- When we talk about exposing kids to 'STEM' in schools, what could be better than having them apply that knowledge to a real-world problem?
Some high school students on the North Shore had the opportunity to do just that over the summer, and they've made their mark—in the field of whale research.
Researchers in Alaska used to gather the whales' DNA with harpoons, but now they just need to capture their spray.
"The goal is, can we collect the data without stressing the whale?" said Dr. Iain Kerr of the Gloucester-based Ocean Alliance.
Dr. oversees a tight budget, so when he needed help solving a problem, he turned to the robotics team at Ipswich High School.
"We started with a smaller design," said Lily Acavedo, a sophomore. "Not everything fit in the right position, so then we'd try again"
Ipswich robotics teacher Dan Costa said the kids spent hundreds of hours over the summer working in the so-called SnotBot program.
"They weren't paid, they weren't graded, they just love it," he said.
It's important for the drone to stay at a certain height over the water so you don't disturb the whale. That was the students' challenge—to help Dr. Kerr maintain that specific height during the flight.
He says what they came up with could change the way whale research is conducted.
"It's a game-changer at a number of levels," said Dr. Kerr.
They worked out a laser beam system that bounces off the water and transmits the drone's position.
"We created a new device in a new way that drones can be used," said senior Roman Gadbois, who worked on the electronics.
Sophomore Annabelle Platt worked on mechanics.
"The fact that it doesn't bother the whale is obviously huge, because that's what Dr. Kerr says is one of the main problems with whale research," she said.
"To see a project like this that makes such a difference in this world is an incredible experience I think for all of us," said Payton Fitzgerald, a senior.
Teacher Dan Costa calls robotics "varsity sports for the mind"—and if funding and timing works out, the kids may be able to go to Alaska on a whale research expedition with Dr. Kerr next summer.
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