Don’t Forget the “S” in STEM – It’s Science at the SF Maritime National Historical Park and Galileo Academy
By Martha Sessums, President, ACE
On an increasingly overcast morning, the day before the last pair of rainstorms hit San Francisco, a group of high school students were introduced to a bright green underwater drone. Looking like a splayed Kermit, the drone’s camera revealed the plants and animals found below the water line on the piers and ship hulls at the Hyde Street Pier.
This was not hooky. This was Environmental Science class.
The classroom was underwater at the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park pier, across from the square-rigger Balclutha, and next to the smaller scow schooner Alma. The students were from Galileo Academy of Science and Technology. The teachers were Park Rangers who know the Bay well, from the biology of the underwater critters and plants to the daily water temperature. And the green drone was an Aqualens Pro Hydroview remotely operated underwater vehicle (ROV) equipped with a video camera.
At ACE, it’s about technology in the classroom. The ROV glided through the water transmitting what it sees to a computer screen. The Maritime Park Rangers and students interpreted and analyzed what was going on beneath the surface to identify the plants and animals and, more importantly, to catalogue them. A perfect technology/classroom-learning storm.
Once the students conquer guiding the ROV, the status of the ship hulls in the Maritime National Historical Park will be analyzed so repair needs can be pinpointed. That lowers the costs of hiring a scuba diver because the diver doesn’t have to spend extra time examining an entire hull to find the problem. The students and the all-seeing green drone will have already done that.
This could happen fast, as the students took to guiding the ROV immediately. It was controlled using a modern video game-like console, and using this device is in their DNA. With fast thumb presses, they navigated the green camera forward, backward and sideways, while managing the orientation of yaw, pitch, roll and heading. The camera sent high definition video to a laptop where Ranger Rejane Butler pointed out the health of the grasses and algae, and identified the hidden creatures.
One creature was a white, sea anemone with swaying tentacles. The students learned that just touching the sea anemone with the ROV would cause the sessile polyp to be venerable to predators. For both protection and to catch food, the hairs at the end of its tentacles have cnidocytes cells that release neurotoxins to paralyze prey and predators. The reaction is automatic, but it takes several weeks to repair the cnidocytes cells, thus leaving the sea anemone more venerable if there’s an unnecessary trigger.
When Ranger Butler asked what fish was immune to the sting of the sea anemone, the students knew right away – clownfish. Everyone knew that the clownfish, Marlin, in “Finding Nemo” lived amongst the sea anemones.
The students also learned that some of the seaweed and algae growing on the pier are new to the San Francisco Bay. According to Ranger Butler, the temperature of the Bay has increased five degrees in the past few years, shifting the distribution of plant species northward from warmer Southern California. The Bay’s native species are moving north too, to find cooler waters.
Then there was that solitary, transparent shrimp checking out the ROV, swimming around it like a curious dog. Climate change, the students asked? “No, just a rogue shrimp,” said Ranger Butler. “I’ve seen him swimming around here before.”
ACE supports the Galileo Environmental Science program at the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park through the U.S. National Park Service. The goal of the class is to teach the students the Science in marine biology.
I made that a capital S for Science. We promoters of technology often focus on engineering and math, and forget that the sciences are a career path too. Geosciences of climate, geology and oceanography are part of the Earth and Space branch of science, and will offer a good career path.
The Galileo students loved their ROV Science experience and were excited to learn more. As Marlin, the clownfish, might joke, “With Science fronds like these, there are no anemones.”*
* “Finding Nemo” pun: “With fronds like these, who needs anemones.”
Thank you so much for this wonderful write up and for your support! I know personally that for many of these kids, this is not only their first trip to the bay but it’s also mind-blowing for them to be in a national park and to experience it as a living classroom. It’s amazing how the ROV really brings STEM to life. Come join us for a BioBlitz next time!