More than 800 elementary and middle school students descended on the Lehi Legacy Center pool last week, but none of them got in the water.

Instead, they plunked down self-built robots and maneuvered them through a series of underwater obstacles in the annual Utah Underwater Robotics Competition. BYU engineering faculty and students started the program five years ago to help Utah school children learn STEM principles in a fun setting.

“The goal is to promote interest in STEM studies while also teaching students about circuits, propulsion, buoyancy and other scientific topics,” said student founder Kip Hacking. “It’s fun because the kids get to put their hands-on experience to the test.”

Check out a slideshow of this year's event, courtesty of BYU Photo:

  • Underwater robot competition

    Photo Credit: Nate Edwards/BYU Photo

  • Underwater robot competition

    Photo Credit: Nate Edwards/BYU Photo

  • Underwater robot competition

    Photo Credit: Nate Edwards/BYU Photo

  • Underwater robot competition

    Photo Credit: Nate Edwards/BYU Photo

  • Underwater robot competition

    Photo Credit: Nate Edwards/BYU Photo

  • Underwater robot competition

    Photo Credit: Nate Edwards/BYU Photo

  • Underwater robot competition

    Photo Credit: Nate Edwards/BYU Photo

  • Underwater robot competition

    Photo Credit: Nate Edwards/BYU Photo

  • Underwater robot competition

    Photo Credit: Nate Edwards/BYU Photo

  • Underwater robot competition

    Photo Credit: Nate Edwards/BYU Photo

  • Underwater robot competition

    Photo Credit: Nate Edwards/BYU Photo

  • Underwater robot competition

    Photo Credit: Nate Edwards/BYU Photo

The competition was the culmination of four months of work for the school children, who built the ROVs (remotely operated underwater vehicles) from inexpensive motors, electronics and plenty of PVC pipes.

Each year students are given a specific challenge to complete. This year’s version required students to retrieve and deploy bacteria samples from a fictional abandoned Cold War-era underwater research facility. Students had 10 minutes to retrieve the samples using only a small controller and their ROV.

The Utah Underwater Robotics competition is one of the largest of its kind in the United States, growing from 250 participating students in its first year to now more than 800 students. First place winners in each category get to compete in the national event later in the year.