Exploring Seafloor Volcanoes Cyberspace: NOAA's Ocean Explorer Inspires Inquiry

Article excerpt

Be one of the first to witness an explosive volcanic eruption on the seafloor. Venture closer to gaze at a new species exposed by submersible light. Wonder aloud how animals survive on an active volcano. Scientists are using submersibles and remote sensing devices to explore the seafloor, and they are making the data available to students in near real time. Remote sensing and data collection in a cold, dark environment that is hostile to humans is scientific inquiry on the cutting edge. The seafloor exploration being done by scientists is an ideal way to introduce students to technology as a tool for inquiry. The same technology that allows scientists to share data in near real time can also provide students the tools to become researchers. NOAA's Ocean Explorer Explorations website (www.oceanexplorer.noaa.gov) is a rich research data bank that can be used by inquisitive middle students to ask their own questions and use the same data scientists do to find answers.

Ocean Explorer Explorations in the classroom

The Ocean Explorer website follows NOAA scientific ocean exploration missions, about six per year. Daily logs follow teams of scientists as they do science. New discoveries are recorded along with the scientists' on-the-spot reactions and observations. Through the website students have access to background information about the questions the scientists are investigating and the technology being used to acquire data. Students -will find photos, videos, and bathymetry data. They see submersibles, remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), and autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) in action. The exploration pages are continuously maintained and updated, so a cutting-edge question from one year's field season may be answered the next. Over the past nine field seasons, Ocean Explorer has amassed a searchable database of scientific data students can use to answer their own questions. Ocean Explorer is a free resource that anyone can log on to. It has an education link that provides lesson plans and information about teacher training.

In my program, seafloor exploration serves as a bridge between the plate tectonics and the oceans units. It also works well as a culminating project, applying and extending what students have learned in both units. The seafloor exploration activities described here were carefully crafted to invest students in the inquiry aspect of scientific research from the outset. Exciting seafloor eruption videos and visualizations created from real bathymetry data provoked student questions. To answer those questions, students used the Ocean Explorer data bank. They read for information, found and collected data, and honed some of the most difficult scientific skills to teach: organizing and analyzing data, and drawing conclusions. Technology enabled students to conduct seafloor exploration, and students were thinking like scientists.

This lesson was inspired by a teacher research experience in plate tectonics at Scripps Institute of Oceanography (SIO) in the summer of 2005. Researchers at SIO believe that the most powerful introduction to science for students is enabling them to answer their own questions. The template used to guide students through the process of answering their own questions was developed for a workshop on creating Enduring Resources for Earth Science Education sponsored by the National Science Foundation and supported by the SIO, San Diego Supercomputer Center, and Oregon State University College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences (http://earthref.org/ events/ERESE/2005).

Student seafloor exploration

To encourage students to explore NOAA's Ocean Explorer website and raise their own questions about exploration, volcanoes, vent organisms and plate tectonics on the seafloor, I take my students on a virtual voyage to the Mariana Arc and take a simulated trip to the bottom of the ocean. This trip introduces students to some never-before-seen resources available on the Ocean Explorer websites. …