Explorer visits to talk oceanography, discovery


Nearly 700 Warwick seventh graders were treated to a presentation from famed oceanographer Robert Ballard yesterday at Pilgrim High School. Dr. Ballard, who is best known for discovering the Titanic in 1985, spoke to students about his work, advances made in exploration technology and the opportunities they will have to interact with his team through the JASON Learning curriculum, which will officially be implemented in 16 school districts, including Warwick, this school year.

Following his presentation, Ballard joined representatives from Sea Research Foundation, Inc., a partner of JASON Learning, a number of Rhode Island superintendents and other Rhode Island officials, including Warwick Representative Eileen Naughton, Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian and Superintendent Richard D’Agostino, to announce the second appropriation to fund the expansion of JASON Learning by the General Assembly.

JASON Learning is a non-profit organization founded by Ballard in 1989. It allows students to connect with real-life scientists and researchers in real time, virtually or physically. It also provides free learning materials and professional development for teachers in districts implementing the program, which is designed for those at the junior high level.

“It’s been great, and I’m really excited about having more students participating,” said Naughton, who said, with the second appropriation of $500,000, close to 20,000 students will be exposed to the program. In total, the General Assembly has contributed $1 million to bring the state-of-the-art science curriculum to students.

“We are the Ocean State and we have finally enabled our students to participate in that,” said Naughton.

Avedisian said the city should be especially proud that Warwick representatives, first Representative Patricia Serpa and now Naughton, sponsored both appropriations for the program.

Sixteen school districts have implemented the JASON Learning curriculum: Bristol/Warren, Burrillville, Central Falls, Coventry, Cranston, East Providence, Jamestown, Newport, North Providence, Pawtucket, Providence, Smithfield, Warwick, West Warwick, Westerly and Woonsocket. This school year marks the first year JASON Learning is in Warwick’s junior high schools.

D’Agostino explained that the beginning work was completed last year, that of sending teachers to workshops and professional development.

“This year is going to be the first involving the kids,” said D’Agostino.

He explained that the program provides a way to make science exciting and is an important part of education.

“The greatest resource Rhode Island has is its children,” said Ballard, “and the best investment the state can make is to educate them.”

Ballard hopes that his team aboard the E/V Nautilus, a ship heading to the Caribbean Sea to explore underwater mountains will help with that education.

Through a 24-hour live online stream of activity in the ship’s control center, students will be able to see what the scientists and researchers are uncovering in real time.

“Our ship, we’re running like the emergency room of a hospital; we never know what we are going to get,” said Ballard, adding that scientists are on call day and night, as are Ballard’s graduate students at the Inner Space Center at the URI’s Graduate School of Oceanography.

“My students are watching this 24 hours a day, four hours on, four hours off,” he said.

Ballard explained that command centers have been built throughout the United States and the world and satellites transmit to those centers.

Ballard said JASON offers different scientific topics from the scientists and researchers working on them.

“It’s all about building a community of learners,” said Ballard.

Ballard’s team leaves today, but Ballard will join them for three weeks at the end of October. The team will be exploring an underwater mountain range where the Earth’s plates are moving, splitting apart and producing a number of surprising changes. During a previous exploration of volcanoes, Ballard and his team discovered living bacteria that were able to mimic photosynthesis without the sun.

“We believe this is how a planet reproduces,” said Ballard.

His team also learned that water was going into the cracks created at these plates, cycling through magma and come back up with new minerals.

“Your generation is going to explore more of the Earth than previous generations,” said Ballard. “Your generation is going to spend most of your time out of your body.”

Ballard explained that he is able to explore more of the ocean because he no longer needs to physically travel to the site. He said it took two and a half hours to get to the Titanic each day. But, with the help of robots he named Jason and Jason Jr., he was able to completely explore the ruins, including taking Jason Jr. down the Grand Staircase.

“Then, I was on the deck on the Titanic [in a submarine controlling the robots],” said Ballard. “Now, I can do it from my cell phone.”

Advances in technology have allowed Ballard to send robots to the ocean floor, but he can remain on ship or land in any number of control centers.

At the conclusion, Ballard took questions from the audience and most were about the Titanic.

“How did I act when I discovered the Titanic? I acted like an idiot; I was jumping up and down,” said Ballard, much to the amusement of the audience.

Ballard was asked if he always knew he wanted to be an oceanographer and Ballard explained that he was inspired after reading “20,000 Leagues Under The Sea.”

“I took a dream to be Captain Nemo and I think I did it,” said Ballard, encouraging the students to hold on to their dreams with the same passion. “You need your passion to get you through life.”

The work done aboard the E/V Nautilus can be followed in real time at www.nautiluslive.org, and on Facebook and Twitter. Ballard encouraged his captivated audience to send all of their questions to the team aboard the ship through the website; during their last exploration, 20,000 questions were answered.

“We aren’t making discoveries every minute,” said Ballard. “We fight over answering your questions.”


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