A Neo-Nemo for the Classroom: Remote Exploration 42,000 Miles Under the Sea

Acclaimed oceanographer Robert Ballard wants to make some waves in science education.

Acclaimed oceanographer Robert Ballard wants to make some waves in science education.

What
Credit: Mystic Aquarium
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Edutopia magazine editor in chief James Daly spoke with the man who discovered the wreck of the RMS Titanic and other submerged vessels about what science instruction in the public schools is and what it could be:

What is the state of science education in the classroom?

I know one thing: We're not doing it right.

How should it be done?

Through motivation and role modeling. First, kids have to want to do science. I was fortunate; when I was a kid, it was cool to be an astronaut, which requires so much science. But now, it's not so cool to be a scientist. The hardest group in the world to talk to is a group of high school kids, because they're too cool. An important thing to remember is that the game is over by eighth grade.

What do you mean?

You either got 'em or you don't by middle school. We have all these foreign kids kicking down the doors of American universities because they're the best schools in the world. None of those kids are kicking down the doors of our middle schools. We're endowing universities that don't need endowing. We don't have the troops in the right place. We need to be endowing middle schools, because they are generally unprepared to teach the sciences. So, the real challenge is this: Can America reinvigorate science education in its public middle schools? We can, if we make science cool and fun.

How do we do that?

Stop emphasizing that students simply take science and math because they have to, and instead emphasize the joy of having a skill or career that requires those courses.

You mean where math and science skills can take you?

Exactly. Do you want to do some amazing things? Wouldn’t everyone like to be on Star Trek? Absolutely. Wouldn't everyone like to go with George Lucas into his imaginary world? Yes. But what if you could travel into an incredible, real land? Science and math can do that. That's the kind of motivation that gets the kids to say, "Sign me up."

Science is fun -- a great adventure for the rest of your life. When I was playing college basketball, I asked myself, "Do I move on and try to make it to the pros, or do I become Captain Nemo?" Larry Bird retired from basketball when he was about thirty years old. I'm sixty-five years old and in the prime of my game. Who picked the right sport?

Look at all the fun things you still have to play with.

That's the message: "Come on -- we've got the world and the universe to explore!" Every generation stands on the shoulders of the previous generation and sees much further. And when you instill this in your students, you give them a mission to go where no one has gone before. And guess what? They want to go.

How did you get interested in ocean exploration?

As a child, I wanted to be Captain Nemo, and I think I pulled it off. I loved the fact that the Earth is mostly water; almost three-quarters of our planet is under the ocean. One thing I imagine most Americans don't know is that half of our country is under water. Most is unexplored -- we have better maps of Mars than we have of most of America. I always wondered how we ended up with better maps of unattainable places than of our own country. I think it's because we're air-breathing creatures and the ocean scares most people. God is up in the air, and the devil is down in the deep, blue sea, so we have a natural aversion to going down. It's where bad things are.

The ocean not only covers most of our plant but is also extremely deep -- about 12,000 feet. That's over 2 miles! Fifty percent of the ocean, which is 72 percent of the planet, is even deeper than that.

But the problem I was having in my exploration was getting to work; literally getting down there. Can you imagine if your job required you to commute two and a half hours each way? Five hours on the Los Angeles freeway? That'd be very depressing. Well, that describes my job. For many, many years, it took two and a half hours to get down, and two and a half hours to get up. Most of my time was spent not actually exploring, but traveling in a very cold, cramped elevator without a bathroom.

But that was the price of doing business. By the way, the average bottom time over those twenty years of diving was three and a half hours. And the average distance I traveled was a mile.

My initial obsession was exploring undersea mountain ranges -- 42,000 miles long. So how long would it take me to cover 42,000 miles if I was doing only 1 mile a day? The answer is 42,000 dives. I thought that seemed ludicrous. So I went off to teach at Stanford University, and I heard about a new technology called fiber optics. Well, that opened up a new world for me. I thought, "Wow -- if I can do that, then I can do what they do in Star Trek. I can beam me down."

This was my dream -- not to go physically to the bottom of the ocean, but to send my spirit down to the bottom through telepresence. That's what I called it.

In order to do this, I built a robot called JASON, which would carry everything in my submarine except me, physically. JASON had my video cameras and manipulators -- basically, I was simply moving the window. In undersea exploration, unlike in space exploration, you don't get out of the submarine. Can you imagine if Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin went to the Moon, looked out the window, and said, "OK -- let's go home"?

It must have been incredibly liberating.

It was. The beauty of it was that, by using this remote-controlled explorer with cameras and fiber-optic cabling, I never had to come up.

I wanted to pursue this, but you know, the problem with new ideas is that people don't like them. I couldn't convince my colleagues to do it, but I decided to go ahead with it. On my first mission, I wanted to find the Titanic. I wanted to demonstrate to the world that we'd entered a new era of deep-sea exploration, that with this technology, we could take a remote-controlled vehicle and camera and "walk" down the grand staircase of the Titanic.

In one week, I received 16,000 letters from children across this country. And I've read that for every child who writes to you, one hundred almost did. That would be 1.6 million letters.

What did the letters say?

They said, "We've been watching George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, and we see R2-D2 and C-3PO, and we know they're not real. But your explorer is real. We want to do that!" Basically, the kids realize that I'm playing the biggest videogame on Earth. It has consequences and sustenance. You feel good about it, because you’re having fun, making discoveries, and doing great things.

How do you encourage these young explorers?

I tell them that to be on my team, they have to study. I remember telling my teacher that I wanted to be Captain Nemo. The teacher said, "Do your math." I told her I didn't want to do math. "Well, Captain Nemo has to navigate a ship. He has to know math." So I did my mental push-ups.

The point is this: I want people on my team. I want people to drive the explorer and go on new adventures. That's why I created my first educational outreach program, the JASON Project, which promotes education through exploration. I'm also involved in a program, for which Congress just approved funding, which features an interactive exploration ship for students.

I've brought students into my studio and let them control a robot exploring the Titanic. You want to see astonishment on a kid's face? It doesn't get better than that.

James Daly is the former editorial director of Edutopia.

This article originally published on 9/10/2007

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