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Going under to prove they're tops

Springstead High's Sub Club is harnessing human power to build and guide vessels for competition.Springstead High's Sub Club is harnessing human power to build and guide vessels for competition.

Published February 15, 2007


Students in the Submarine Engineering Club at Springstead High have to trust each other on a visceral level. They are building, with help from Central students, two human-powered submarines in which most of them will risk their personal safety to meet a goal.

The goal is proving their design, engineering and construction better, or at least faster, than designs from colleges all over the world. Springstead is one of only two high school entrants in the International Human Powered Submarine competition, held in Bethesda, Md., in June.

Last year, they took third overall and third for speed. Nicole Johnson, a Springstead graduate now living in Alaska, placed first in her division.

This year, the team will enter the same submarine, dubbed Sublime, and, possibly, a second vehicle.

Zhao Wang, 17, said, "It's fun to make a submarine from the bottom up and see it work. Designing is exciting; putting it together and taking it apart over and over. And going there to beat everyone is the best."

The subs are made of molded fiberglass. Zhao will tell you that's the worst part of the deal - sanding fiberglass, then sitting through the rest of the day with itchy, irritated skin.

But it's part of the challenge.

Students on the team spend a lot of their spare time constructing, testing and sanding, and sometimes they have to scrap what they did and start over.

"I've wanted to be an engineer and inventor since I was a little kid," said Chris Sarabalis, 17, who just won mega-awards in the county's science fairs. "I got into this and started designing the propeller. It just kept going from there for me."

Most of the kids will earn scuba certification so they can pilot the sub. The vessel is about big enough for an average-size teen to lie down in, feet on bicycle pedals, head by a plexiglass porthole and hands barely able to manipulate a joy-stick type steering apparatus.

At least two members of the team, Brittany Inglese and Merissa Sass, both 17, are into the construction process but definitely not into going 30 feet down in what looks a lot like an oversized vitamin capsule.

Marissa said, "I got claustrophobic and decided not to drive. I'm a worker. That's fine."

Brittany agreed, reserving the right to change her mind at some point.

The Sub Club has a poignant history. Steve Barton, an instructor at Springstead, built the first Sublime sub with his son Stephen.

In 1991, at age 16, Stephen placed ninth of 19 and was designated "most innovative designer." Stephen's sub won third, then first place in the International Science Fair in engineering.

In 1995 Stephen lost his life in a small plane crash and the sub was retired as the Barton family grieved. Years went by.

In 1998 South Broward High School in South Florida asked to use the sub in a competition, and the family agreed.

That resulted in another first place for Sublime and Steve Barton found comfort in a new generation of students awed by the idea of people-powered underwater vehicles.

So a club in Hernando was born. They redesigned and re-engineered a new Sublime and began to compete in 2003.

The new incarnation, at 4 knots, took sixth of 23 in its first run. The students and their adviser never looked back.

They're learning teamwork, intellectual curiosity, construction skills and an important lesson in turning life's hardest challenges into something positive.

In April, the team will take Sublime to Weeki Wachee Springs for an exhibition race against Virginia Tech and a European team yet to be named. Park visitors can watch the race.

Fast Facts:

How to help

To help sponsor the team's travel and competition, or for information, contact Steve Barton at Springstead High School, 797-7010.

[Last modified February 15, 2007, 06:47:46]

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