Engaging Students in Underwater Technology and ROVs
by Jessica Lotz
Education and Outreach Coordinator
The Marine Science and Technology Center
ften times it’s hard for us air breathers to really appreciate the depth and immensity of our ocean when we are standing at its surface. The deepest canyons and trenches are so massive that they are able fit Mt. Everest inside, leaving miles of ocean above its peak to spare. What is even more shocking is that only about 5% of the ocean has been explored. With more miles of the surface of Mars mapped than in our own planet’s ocean, scientists are diving into new technology to help us better understand the deep. The boom in underwater technology has enabled us to understand more about the ocean than ever before by exploring the depths, collecting data, and accomplishing tasks that would limit a human in the past. The ocean connects every ecosystem on the planet; understanding and exploring it is more than a matter of curiosity, it is critical!
Ocean literacy is vital for maintaining healthy ecosystems, resources, and planning for our planet’s future. Teaching students and the community about these advances in underwater technology is crucial because it empowers them to discover, monitor, and preserve marine habitat. We hope to show other organizations how teaching an ocean exploration curriculum, which uses ROV (Remotely Operated Vehicle) technology, to a wide variety of learners can be an effective tool to increase ocean literacy.
Tucked away on beautiful Redondo Beach in the central Puget Sound, the Marine Science and Technology Center (MaST) is the marine biology and aquarium facility of Highline College. Dedicated to expanding knowledge about the Puget Sound, a central mission of the MaST Center is fostering a culture of marine stewardship by engaging the community through interactive learning, personal relations, and exploration. In order to accomplish this mission, our education team has developed program curriculum designed around ROVs and underwater technology. The result? – Students ranging from 3rd grade to college, summer campers and aquarium guests have hands-on experiences either building or utilizing the video capabilities of underwater robots.
The planning of this curriculum was highly influenced by Marine Advanced Technology Education (MATE) organization. Their website is full of resources including curriculum about ROV basics and assemblage. They even have materials such as pre-assembled kits including motors and control boxes all available for purchase through their website marinetech.org. Another organization that offers similar materials is SeaPerch, which you can visit at seaperch.org. Both of these sites offer competitive rates under $200 per kit, including instruction materials. We have found that 3-4 students per kit seems to work best when designing frames and driving the vehicles, so plan for that while budgeting. Once you decide which company offers materials that match your program goals, you can outfit your classroom with a long-lasting and incredible resource to learn. At the MaST Center, we are fortunate enough to test the vehicles in the Puget Sound; but a close proximity to the ocean is not necessary. Your students will still gain valuable learning experience even simply testing their ROVs in a blowup pool. This programming is very flexible and is a valuable resource for teachers wishing to engage their students with topics involving ocean exploration, underwater technology, and engineering.
At our facility, all of the curriculum is linked to Next Generation Science Standards and Ocean Literacy Principals, making it simple to integrate into teachers’ planned coursework. Students learning this material not only learn about ocean exploration, monitoring, and uses of underwater technology; they also gain experience becoming familiar with force diagrams, engineering methods, and problem solving skills. We aim to educate the public about underwater technology through facets other than coursework. One portion of our program that always seems to intrigue learners includes showing them the live footage from ROVs actively exploring the ocean. They are able to connect what they are learning to current, exciting expeditions beneath the surface. Any teacher can do this easily by visiting the live streams of the NOAA Okeanos Explorer or the Nautilus Live ROVs online. I’ve included the websites for these live streams here:
Okeanos Explorer: https://oceanexplorer.noaa.gov/livestreams/welcome.html
Nautilus Live: https://www.nautiluslive.org/
Your students will surely gain plenty of valuable knowledge about underwater technology and ROVs by building and testing the frames, but there is always room to expand upon this type of program. At the MaST Center we took the programming a few steps further by doing some of the following activities. During the Summer of 2018, we will spotlight ROVs and underwater technology during our Sound Science Summer Camp. The theme of the camp will be “Science Beyond the Surface”. This theme will create an interconnection between ROVs not only through daily activities, but throughout the week in its entirety.
Another way in which we teach ROV education is through robotics clubs! Students of this generation are growing up in an era of rapid technological advance. This creates an opportunity to fuel these students’ fascination and impressive knowledge of technology into ocean research. We work with 5th grade students from Geiger Montessori Elementary School in Tacoma, WA to do just that. The club has been designing, engineering, and testing ROVs in preparation for the 2018 Marine Advanced Technology Education (MATE) ROV competition. Through the club, these young students have dove even deeper into the makings of these underwater robots, and even learned to wire the electronics and motors themselves. In addition to these engineering feats, they gained further experience by preparing technical reports, poster displays, and engineering presentations which were delivered to professionals working in the field. All of these skills will be useful as they prepare for technical careers in the future. We are proud to say that the team won 1st place in their class at the 2018 Marine Advanced Technology (MATE) ROV competition in May! I feel certain that this club has inspired many of the youngsters to stay involved in underwater robotics and the sciences in general.
After putting in many long hours, gaining a victory, and sharing their insights with their elementary school; the club was able to explore a WWII plane wreck in Lake Washington 150 feet below the surface using an advanced ROV. The youngsters were able to drive the underwater vehicle and record video of the sunken plane. This experience was not only exciting, but also educational because the students were able to apply the knowledge that they’ve gained, and apply it to a real life scenario. This was an opportunity of a lifetime.
We interact and educate the public about ROV technology in a number of ways including presenting aquarium volunteers and visitors with the opportunity to build ROV frames and test them off our dock. They may also explore the underwater habitats of Redondo Beach, WA with our $10,000 Aquabotix ROV, equipped with video streaming capabilities.
Our program impacts students and the community in a way that goes beyond the classroom. As I mentioned previously, teaching about underwater technology and ROVs is a very flexible and dynamic opportunity. It can be as simple as allowing the public to drive the vehicles, to the intricacy of a dedicated club wiring the entire system. It’s up to you to choose which option works best for your site’s desires and capabilities.
Moving forward, I ask you to join me. Help me inspire the next generation to explore the last unknown frontier! Imagine the possibility of discoveries, solutions, and history we may find in the ocean. Using the latest underwater technology, unveiling the oceans and turning a mystery into reality is right at our fingertips. As educators, we just need to dive right in.
Jessica Lotz is the Education and Outreach Coordinator at the Marine Science and Technology Center (MaST) Aquarium, a program of Highline College in Des Moines, Washington.