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.
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.
Ballard with student Argonaut Jennifer Alvarez and teacher
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.
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.
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.
experiment outside the Aquarius designed to measure seaweed
growth and whether it varies seasonally.
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.
400 students from the Houston area at the PIN site at the
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.