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PANA – Made out of what looks like mismatched spare parts, the remote-controlled vehicle doesn't look like much.

Not until it slips into the water and maneuvers around obstacles like a fish do you see why the five 15-year-olds who created it are headed next weekend to the sixth annual National SeaPerch Challenge at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.

“We made tons of modifications to it,” said Babe Bradley, the only girl among five ninth-graders, who has been in charge of illustrating what the team did. “The flotation's modified, and we also modified our clamshell here, too.”

Her teacher Steve Bonser added that it steers like a skid steer: “You can turn it almost on a dime.”

Ahsten Wallace ought to know. Because of his “fast thumbs,” he's the driver in the outfit.

“We had to shorten it up so it would make it through the hoops,” he said. “We're going to paint the chassis all one color, either black or white.”

The duo, along with electrician James Hill, hydrodynamics specialist Steven Gordon and flotation designer Garrett Horton, make up Pana Bathyscaphe, named grand champion among 72 teams competing at the Navy City Outreach Regional SeaPerch Challenge in Chicago on March 19.

This was the second year Pana competed after Bonser heard about the competition from a Navy recruiter while attending an air show in Detroit. SeaPerch is a Navy outreach program that leads students to hands-on learning about robotics, engineering, science and mathematics.

Indeed, it was the school's tradition of competing in the NASA Exploration Rover Challenge every spring at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., that drew Bonser to Pana in the first place eight years ago as the high school's career and technical education teacher. “I knew that was for me,” Bonser said.

Pana's moon buggy team didn't do so well this time because of faulty welds, but three of the team members were ninth-graders, too: Jordan Bock, Connor Hilderand and Lucas Duduit, along with sophomore Fayth Stout and junior Andy Schloz.

Bonser said he likes freshmen for these types of projects. “They don't have jobs, and they don't have cars,” he said.

On the way to becoming grand champions in Chicago, Pana Bathyscaphe also won best engineering design, first place in the open class overall all and in the orbs challenge, plus second place for poster presentation and obstacle challenge.

The orbs challenge involves capturing three different-size whiffle balls and getting them into a bucket, while the obstacle challenge involves maneuvering the vehicle through five hoops of different sizes.

James has the job during competition of making sure the vehicle's 50-foot tether, which provides the power, doesn't get tangled.

“If you go wireless, you have a higher chance of getting stuck under the water when trying to do obstacles,” Babe said.

The team's vehicle also has five motors instead of the three included in the original design, in part, so it can go up and down faster. Garrett said adding more flotation in the rear keeps it from “jumping out of the water like a shark.”

About 150 teams are expected to compete in the national SeaPerch Challenge Friday and Saturday in LSU's Carl Maddox Fieldhouse.

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