Ocean explorer brings undersea science to life

Famed ocean explorer Robert Ballard says he’s just a few months from the culmination of a 28-year dream–and he’ll be taking students along with him virtually as he achieves it.

Best known for discovering the wreck of the Titanic in 1985, Ballard is the founder of the JASON Project, which connects students with explorers during live sea expeditions in an attempt to spark their interest in science.

"If you think we’re pretty hot now, get ready," he said.

Speaking at the Texas Computer Education Association (TCEA) conference in Austin Feb. 6, Ballard told several thousand educators that recent advances in "telepresence" technology will enable him to keep unmanned robot submarines on the ocean floor 24-7.

Fiber-optic cables will transmit live video feeds from cameras on these remote-controlled submarines to a brand-new command center at the University of Rhode Island’s Institute for Archaeological Oceanography, where Ballard works. Similar command centers are being built at 11 other oceanography institutes across the country, he said, and these facilities will all be linked together via the ultra high-speed Internet2 backbone.

If a submarine reveals a major discovery–say, a lost city, such as the legendary Atlantis–experts in whatever scientific fields are relevant can be at their respective command centers within 20 minutes, remotely controlling the sub and its cameras to zoom in on particular features as they explore this latest breakthrough.

And, thanks to an $11 million live production studio that National Geographic is helping to build next to the main command center at URI, students will be able to experience these breakthroughs, too.

Students at Internet2-connected schools will be able to view remote camera images from the sea floor, and they’ll be able to listen in on live conversations among scientists as they discuss their discoveries. All Rhode Island middle schools are connected to Internet2 already, Ballard said–and they’re building their own remote command centers in the school libraries, so students can join in these explorations firsthand and even remotely control the submarines themselves.

Previous technologies enabled some remote exploration of the sea floor, Ballard said, but the cameras couldn’t transmit images that rivaled what you’d see if you were piloting the submarine yourself. But that has changed with recent advances in fiber optics–and these developments will take ocean exploration to a whole new depth.

That’s significant, Ballard said, because most of the Earth’s surface has yet to be explored or mapped in detail. Oceans cover 72 percent of the Earth’s surface, he explained, adding that we’ve mapped more of the surface of Mars than our own planet.

Now, that’s about to change.

"I tell kids in middle school that their generation, thanks to telepresence technology, will explore more of the Earth than we’ve [ever] previously explored. . . ," Ballard said.

Ballard has led deep-sea expeditions that have made several major discoveries, including the Mid-Atlantic Ridge in the 1970s–the world’s largest mountain chain, covering a quarter of the Earth’s surface. But it wasn’t until Ballard discovered the Titanic that he began receiving letters from students–16,000 within the first two weeks of his discovery.

"They all asked: What do I have to do to do what you do for a living?" he said. Most also asked: "The next time you go, can I go with you?"

That’s when Ballard got the idea for the JASON Project. This was 20 years ago, he explained, before the internet even existed. He developed a seagoing studio, using the same technology that brought live sporting events to the masses.

"We want our stars to be scientists and educators," he said. The JASON Project targets middle school students, because "if we don’t get them by the eighth grade, we won’t get them at all."

Ballard told the story of how, as a college basketball player, he would have to sprint the length of the court 30 times after each practice, then shoot several free throws. Even though he was already gassed and had a pile of homework facing him when he got back to his room, he always ran these sprints, because he knew that if he wanted to play in the games, he had to put in the work.

"If we sell students on the game [of science], they’ll do the mental pushups" required to succeed, he said.

The advances that Ballard described at the TCEA conference should go a long way toward helping him reach this goal. He concluded his talk by showing a slide of a middle school girl with her eyes wide open and her jaw dropped in awe as she controlled a remote submarine on the sea floor.

"I think we just got one–what do you think?" he said.

(Editor’s note: For more coverage of this year’s TCEA conference in Austin Feb. 4-6, visit the TCEA Conference Information Center page at eSN Online: http://www.eschoolnews.com/conference-info/tcea.)


Institute for Archaeological Oceanography

The JASON Project

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