Homer Alaska - Schools

Story last updated at 6:41 PM on Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Looking beneath the surface attracts young scientists

By McKibben Jackinsky
Staff writer

Young scientists from Sheryl Sotelo's sixth-grade class at McNeil Canyon Elementary School saw "science where you can't see" Friday after launching camera-equipped, underwater ROVs, remote-operated vehicles, in Homer's small boat harbor.

The activity came after trial runs at Kate Kuhns Aquatic Center swimming pool allowed students to practice maneuvering the submersible, student-built crafts.

"The purpose ... was to give students a culminating event of an engineering challenge with many real life connections," said Sotelo.

"Much of science is accomplished by observation and data collection, but what do you do when your field of study is in a place that is more difficult to observe, such as underwater or in hazardous conditions? How do you do science in a place that you can't necessarily view with your own eyes?"

The ROVs were constructed from PVC pipe cut to varying lengths, PVC connectors, electrical and duct tape, zip ties, pipe insulation and waterproof motors.

In addition, the sixth-grade scientists drew from the expertise of Mike Byerly of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Byerly designed an activity for McNeil Canyon's gym that simulated a Kachemak Bay survey of rockfish populations he has conducted. Kris Holderied, director of NOAA's Kasitsna Bay Laboratory, discussed scientific applications of autonomous and remotely operated robots.

"She talked about different uses and real-life situations including the recent Gulf (of Mexico) oil spill and her passion for science, math, and technology came through," said Sotelo.

A fish tote borrowed from Kevin Hogan of Auction Block and delivered to the school by volunteer Jeff Middleton served as a water tank for testing the motors and buoyancy, with the students discovering each additional part, including the cameras, increased the challenge.

"It involved a lot of problem solving, critical thinking and teamwork," said Sotelo.

At the pool, students ran the ROVs through obstacle courses, retrieved objects from the bottom of the pool, dove through hula-hoops and cleaned up an oil spill simulated with ping-pong balls. A poolside monitor helped operate the ROVs underwater.

At the harbor, students relied on the monitors to navigate in water murky from a recent algae bloom, drove through kelp and maneuvered around natural obstacles, discovering the ROVS behaved differently due to the impact of salt water on buoyancy.

"Trouble shooting seemed to be often necessary when robots lost power or a monitor screen went blank or when the robot disappeared," said Sotelo.

The opportunity for students to question what was happening, design investigations in pursuit of answers, and observe, record and analyze the data they collected added to the learning experience.

Transportation and judging of the missions was provided by parents Matt Harris, Carrie Ardenia, Buck Jones, and John and Alisha Mahoney, with John Gillam providing underwater photography at the pool.

"As a teacher, I was so impressed with my students and everyone who helped us," said Sotelo.

"It was a powerful learning project and I can't wait to do it again next year."

McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at mckibben.jackinsky@homernews.com.