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JASON takes Young Explorers to Extremes

The Aquarius undersea habitat.
Photo by Tom Stack and Associates

This spring students began a real and virtual investigation of what it's like to live under the sea or in space during the JASON XI 'Going to Extremes' project.

by Julie Zeidner Russo

Leaving the confines of the classroom behind, students joined mentors in a show and tell (and experiment) in the field. The project demonstrated that exploration is an effective way of teaching and learning about science. At the center of the mission were the NOAA's Undersea Research Program's (NURP) Aquarius undersea habitat and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) International Space Station. About 30 students and their teachers in scuba gear and space suits explored on-site at the Aquarius and at the NASA space station. For the 400,000 students who couldn't actually be there, they had sea and space delivered to them via satellite and the Internet.

Dr. Robert Ballard with student Argonaut Jennifer Alvarez and teacher Argonaut
Diane Waller.

At the helm of the JASON project, from February 28 and March 10, were Drs. Robert Ballard, a deep-ocean explorer and founder of the JASON project, and Kathy Sullivan, a former astronaut and former chief scientist of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Many other scientists and technicians participated in and helped stage the live broadcasts. Students competed for the chance to become student argonauts, and take part in the JASON experience first-hand. Six students dove with scientists on Aquarius, located at a 20 m (63 ft) depth. The undersea habitat rests on a 120-ton baseplate on top of a sandpatch adjacent to a coral reef in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. (Visit Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Web site to learn more about the sanctuary. To learn more about Aquarius, and to take a virtual tour inside, visit the National Undersea Research Center at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington Web site.) During their dives, the students helped scientists conduct coral reef experiments and related their experiences during live broadcasts. Other students participated in training exercises with astronauts at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, TX. Five shows a day featuring the activities of the scientists and students were broadcast to 36 PIN (Primary Interactive Network) sites around the world during the two-week period. The entire event was also broadcast once a day on the World Wide Web.

Student argonauts practicing their diving techniques in preparation for dives to the Aquarius (left). Argonauts are dressed in suits and ready to enter the clean rooms at the Johnson Space Center to see Antarctic meteorites.

"Teachers and students get excited about science and technology when they learn that it's cool and fun," said Brian Jerome, a JASON education coordinator for National Geographic. "It's people outdoors and under the ocean. This expedition would focus on conditions necessary for life in space and under water, and what it takes to support life in these extreme environments.

Students compared and contrasted the environments inside and outside the Aquarius undersea observatory and the International Space Station. They learned how life support systems, special space suits and wet suits make it possible for scientists to survive in the extremes of sea and space. On-line resources like the Aquarius web site cameras, gave students a feeling for what it's like to live in the undersea habitat, and the logistics required for this effort. The virtual tour guides viewers through the inside of Aquarius where the scientists sleep, work, and eat. Students also learned about other considerations when living beneath the ocean or in space, including what to do with waste and recycling, how to communicate inside and outside these habitats, and what safety and back-up systems are available should things fail.

An experiment outside the Aquarius designed to measure seaweed growth and whether it varies seasonally.
The live shows were the finale for this JASON project. Most students had classwork and discussions with their teachers on topics such as human physiology and exploration technology in advance of the broadcasts. Other students became certified divers, which is one of the prerequisites for any dive made to Aquarius. During the last two weeks of the project, students gained knowledge about the types of biological, chemical, and physical processes scientists examine when they explore new environments. An experiment was conducted on an important seaweed named, "Halimeda," which grows on coral reefs around the Aquarius. The seaweed is very important in the coral reef ecosystem because it grows fast, and produces calcium carbonate segments that eventually break down to become sand on the reef. The experiment was designed to measure plant growth and how it varies seasonally. A bag with stain was placed around plants by scientists outside the Aquarius and held in place with a rubber band. After 24 hours the bag was removed. The seaweed was allowed to grow for seven days before being analyzed by student argonauts who visited the Aquarius to collect the experiment.

At the PIN sites, the students tested their knowledge against their peers. The sites were designed to make students feel immersed in sea and space. Big screens portrayed images of coral reefs and planets, and a bank of computers across the front of the stage set up like NASA's mission control lent an air of drama to the event as if the students were navigating a shuttle mission.

During the hour-long live satellite broadcast, students at the PIN sites could question scientists and students at Aquarius and the Johnson Space Center. Filing up to microphones at the front of auditoriums students asked questions such as: "Do you have trouble breathing under water?" or "How was the Aquarius built?" The on-site participants got a chance to show off technology that enables them to speak through microphones in their waterproof helmets or move about in the neutral buoyancy lab at the space station. PIN site participants tested their knowledge against one another. A moderator on screen asked multiple choice science quiz questions.The clapping in auditoriums was filtered into a computer that tabulated the correct answer.

More than 400 students from the Houston area at the PIN site at the Johnson
Space Center.

One of the on-air personalities during the event was marine scientist Ellen Prager, who spent 14 days living inside Aquarius with five other aquanauts during the expedition. She told students what life was like under water--how the aquanats stayed warm, whether they encountered sharks, where they ate and slept, and what happened to a bag of candy under pressure.

Students participating in the project wondered how the technology at Aquarius worked. For example, they considered the satellite that enabled kids at PIN sites to see other kids under water. Dr. Steven Miller, director of NURP's Southeastern and Gulf of Mexico Program , explained how this innovation works. "Video images and audio via underwater cameras and microphones that are connected to Aquarius by cables, are sent via an umbilical to the Life Support Buoy (LSB) moored above Aquarius," Miller said. "From the LSB, the video and audio is transmitted to mission control back on shore ten miles away, using microwave technology. From mission control, the signals are processed and sent by multiple T1s (fast point-to-point wired connections) to Houston, where they are unscrambled and beamed to satellites that broadcast to all the individual PIN sites around the country and world."

The ability to see and hear aquanauts live provided viewers with a better understanding of the risks and rewards of exploration. The aquanauts breathed air delivered from the surface by compressors through an umbilical, but living under pressure also meant breathing a higher concentration of nitrogen. The excess nitrogen gave the scientists a case of nitrogen narcosis—a condition that causes giddiness.


David Bean and Ellen Prager inside the Aquarius habitat. Ellen eats candy to
give her energy on the final day of the mission.

For students like 15-year old David Bean of Bermuda the chance to dive with scientists like Prager and observe life in the Aquarius habitat may not be a single chance in a lifetime—since with hard work he believes he will be able to return. Everyday during the live JASON broadcasts, Bean was out on a boat or making dives to the Aquarius. He also participated in a science experiment observing how seeds grow inside the habitat. "If all goes well, I hope to be in the Aquarius again, as a scientist," said Bean. "I say do what you like, and if you're doing what you like you'll succeed."

Programs and partnerships like those highlighted this spring at the Aquarius and Johnson Space Station during the JASON XI project are helping to educate students. "The most exciting part of the event was the chance to highlight ocean exploration and the Aquarius. We have explored about one percent of the oceans. The exposure students received during this project will help them to appreciate and conserve this resource," said Andrew Shepard, associate director of NURP's Southeastern U.S. and Gulf of Mexico Program based at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. The university helps operate the Aquarius.

"Human nature inspires us to explore," said Ballard, explaining the merits of this project. "As modern-day explorers, we continue our quest to understand these complex systems, to better understand life in the oceans, and continue our search for life on other planets." Sharing the ideas generated by exploration at the Aquarius and Johnson Space Center also turned out to be a successful way of engaging students in science.

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Updated: August 18, 2004