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Science in action: Willett students study underwater volcano thanks to Skype

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Willett teacher Leslie Whiteford talks to her students about research being done by scientists aboard the Thompson. Sue Cockrell/Enterprise photo

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From page A10 | September 17, 2013 |

They were lined up 14 deep on Wednesday.

Students in Leslie Whiteford’s sixth-grade class at Willett Elementary School were preparing to take their turns introducing themselves and asking a question using a microphone at the computer.

“What do you do for exercise?”

“How is the food?”

“What are the biggest threats to Jason on the ocean floor?”

They were practicing for an imminent Skype session with researchers aboard the Thompson, a vessel currently 300 miles off the Oregon coast studying the Axial Seamount, an underwater volcano on the Juan de Fuca Ridge.

The Thompson, owned by the U.S. Navy Office of Naval Research and operated by the University of Washington’s School of Oceanography, is conducting research on the seamount using a remotely operated vehicle that regularly dives 1,500 meters below the ocean’s surface, collecting samples and measuring the temperatures of a hydrothermal vent.

Given that California sixth-graders study earth science for much of the year, Whiteford thought connecting with the researchers on the Thompson might be an inspiring way to kick off their studies.

Students had been preparing for Wednesday’s Skype session since the start of school, reading the vessel’s blog and doing their own research on underwater volcanos. Their knowledge showed in the questions they asked Wednesday.

About half of the class posed questions to the crew in a session that took a few fits and starts and lost connections before getting underway.

“We’re in the middle of the ocean and Internet is not really reliable,” researcher Rachel Teasdale told the students.

But once both ends turned off the video, audio became clearer, the connection held, and questions and answers commenced.

Student Nick Blakewell asked how the crew had managed to predict the volcano’s last eruption — which took place in 2011.

By studying the changing level of water pressure above the volcano, chief scientist Bill Chadwick told students, the researchers were able to determine the ground was rising, increasing the likelihood of eruption, which they estimated would occur before 2014. It did.

Scientists don’t know much about eruptions on the ocean floor, Chadwick said, because it’s so difficult to observe.

“But that’s why it’s so exciting,” he added.

And it’s made possible thanks to the Thompson’s remotely operated vehicle Jason.

Jason is a two-body ROV system, with a 10-kilometer reinforced fiber-optic cable delivering electrical power and commands from the ship through one part — Medea — and down to the other part — Jason — which then returns data and live video imagery.

Medea serves as a shock absorber, according to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute where the system was built, buffering Jason from the movements of the ship, while providing lighting and a bird’s-eye view of the ROV during seafloor operations.

Jason, meanwhile, is equipped with sonars, video and still imaging systems, lighting, and sampling systems. The ROV’s manipulator arms collect samples of rock, sediment and marine life and place them in the vehicle’s basket or on platforms that float heavier loads to the surface.

Pilots and scientists work from a control room on the ship to monitor Jason’s instruments and video while maneuvering the vehicle.

First launched in 1988, Jason has been used for hundreds of dives to hydrothermal vents in the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian oceans and is now in its second generation, with a sturdier, more advanced vehicle having been launched in 2002.

The ROV also has had a successful side career in underwater archeology. A prototype version named Jason Jr. was used to survey the wreck of the Titanic, and the fully developed Jason visited a 1,600-year-old Roman trading ship in 1989. Jason and Medea are named for the adventurous ocean explorer of Greek mythology and his wife.

Willett students were intrigued by Jason and asked the researchers onboard the Thompson a number of questions about how “he” travels on the ocean floor, what dangers he faces and more.

Chadwick told them the biggest danger Jason faces is getting tangled in cables and instruments — not running into large sea creatures like some of the students thought.

Chadwick also told the students that engineers and pilots are responsible for Jason’s movements.

“Fortunately, scientists don’t have to drive it,” he told them, because they’d probably crash it.

Student Cooper Welsh was curious about what kind of sea life exists around the vocano’s hydrothermal vents and what happens to sea life when an underwater volcano erupts. The answer: some sea life is killed, but bacteria thrives near the hot water escaping the vents, creating opportunities for other life forms.

Students also asked several questions about life onboard an ocean research vessel. They wanted to know how the scientists slept, ate and exercised; they learned that the researchers work in shifts, eat pretty well thanks to an excellent onboard cook and get their exercise in by working out in an exercise room onboard the ship, walking laps around the 270-foot long vessel and climbing up and down ladders.

And merely keeping your balance on the shifting seas, the researchers said, is its own form of exercise.

Whiteford asked them what character traits had led them to where they are now.

“Nobody becomes a scientist without being curious about the natural world,” Chadwick replied.

As a boy, he said, he watched the television program NOVA frequently and as a college student became interested in volcanoes when Mt. St. Helens erupted in Washington state.

In addition to being naturally curious, budding scientists need to be dedicated, too, Teasdale told the students.

“You have to really stick to it with science to get your questions answered,” she said.

Their answers intrigued the students.

Lidia Mergelian said she was surprised to hear that science was about curiosity.

“I thought it was just about learning,” she said.

And most were clearly intrigued about the possibilities of following in Chadwick and Teasdale’s footsteps.

William Booth said he was interested in science even before connecting with the Thompson, and now he’s even more excited, “because stuff I didn’t know, now I know.”

It was certainly a great jump-start into the sixth-grade science curriculum, Whiteford said.

“This a great way to get them excited,” she explained.

And it’s also a unique way to make the scientists they read about more human.

Students may read about researchers in books, hear about their work and discoveries, but getting a chance to actually question them, hear their answers and thoughts, makes them — and what they do — more accessible, Whiteford noted.

So far 10 schools in California, Washington and Oregon are in communication with the Thompson, Whiteford said, and her students will continue to stay in touch with the researchers by emailing questions and following the ship’s blog.

Anyone can follow the journey at http://axial2013.blogspot.com.

Reach Anne Ternus-Bellamy at aternus@davisenterprise.net and 530-747-8051. Follow her on Twitter at @ATernusBellamy.

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