From The Depths Of The Ocean, A Fun Science Lesson

Students Marvel At Close-up View Of Ocean Exploration

December 06, 1991|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Staff writer

In the '90s, life is sometimes like this:

A 13-year-old boy in Ontario grips a joy stick in his right hand, controlling the movements of an underwater robot swimming around the Galapagos Islands, off thecoast of Ecuador. Live pictures of the robot beam via satellite to Atlanta and on to Ontario, where the boy can watch the robot on a video monitor move at his command. The entire scene is viewed on cable television by thousands of students across America.

And when Daniel Vajda, the boy in Ontario, is asked if this is anything like the home video game Nintendo, he says, "Nintendo is better."

Ah, progress.

These scenes from the vanguard of educationaltechnology were played out at the Severn School in Severna Park Wednesday afternoon, as members of Cindy Smith's marine biology class watched the images from South and North America flash on the wall of theaudio-visual room. It was all part of the JASON Project, the marriage of oceanography, education and video technology engineered by Robert Ballard, the Cape Cod-based ocean explorer who discovered the sunken remains of both the Titanic andthe German battleship Bismarck.

Ballard's idea has been to hook students on science by luring them with the electronic razzmatazz and the chance to see ocean exploration as it happens. Also, students in selected schools and science centers have -- through satellite link -- been able to question scientists asthey work.

Severn -- a private college-preparatory school with 415 students -- was among seven schools in Anne Arundel County and 1,350 across the country to sign up to receive the program from the Galapagos, a group of islands some 600 miles off the Ecuadoran coast. Through Turner Educational Services Inc. and Jones Intercable, Severn School was scheduled to see five hour-long programs during the next two weeks.

"It's really an amazing technological feat to pull this off," said Gary Massaglia, general manager of Jones Intercable in Gambrills.

The show very nearly did not go on at all.

On Friday, Nov.22, a barge hauling about $20 million in scientific and video equipment sank off the Ecuadoran coast as it was being towed to the Galapagos Islands. All the equipment, including a robot submarine much like the one being controlled by Daniel Vajda, was lost in 9,000 feet of water. Ballard, who served as host for Wednesday's program, said the equipment would most likely have been destroyed by immersion in seawater. He said the robot submarine probably survived, but he said it would cost as much to find it as to build a new one.

Ballard said theEcuadoran military was pressed into service to fly new equipment to the islands in time to present the program Wednesday. The programs were originally scheduled to begin Monday.

The Galapagos, which wereexplored by Charles Darwin in 1835, represent a trove for oceanographers and geologists. A blend of cold and warm water currents nurturesrich communities of tropical and temperate species of fish. The islands themselves were formed by volcanic eruptions beneath the ocean floor, eruptions that continue to this day. The program included taped pictures of fiery magma rising from the sea bottom, cooling in the water to form outcroppings of bulbous black rock.

The islands are probably known best as the home of enormous Galapagos tortoises that commonly live more than 100 years. Marine iguanas, dragon-like beasts that can grow as large as dogs, also thrive on the islands.

Severn senior Michael Brown, a marine biology major, said he felt the program fit in well with his class work.

"It's adding on in that it's showing the various ways we can learn about the ocean," said Brown, a 17-year-old from Riva. "I like the science when you can interact with stuff."

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