Buoys and Bots: Great Teachers Motivate Students Through Hands-on Learning

Doug Levin is the Associate Director for the Center for
Environment and Society at Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland,
and is an expert in underwater exploration technology, as well as
designing fun programs that teach complex engineering concepts.

kids playing.pngKindergarteners building buoys as part of Build-a-Buoy (Photograph used with permission of the children’s parents)

It’s pretty interesting how we remember the teachers who make a mark on us. Mine was Les Marinoff, who was the lead nature counselor at Camp Greylock in Becket, Massachusetts. I was his assistant at that camp in the summer of 1976.  The first day of class he said, “Let’s go”…and took us on a hike through the woods behind the nature center. He proceeded to show us things in nature that we could eat safely.  I learned more from that quick hour than I had in the entire previous semester of college science. I saw firsthand that experiential learning made a lasting impression, and that became the teaching model I’d bring forth in my future career. 

In an early experience during my junior year of college at Fairleigh Dickinson, I volunteered at Turtle Back Zoo in West Orange, New Jersey. I was tasked with developing lesson plans for a new saltwater aquarium.  I designed, and they built, a platform that allowed “vertically challenged” school-age kids to climb up and reach into the waters to touch the crabs, clams, and snails that were living there.  They always left with wet sleeves, big smiles, and a healthy knowledge of the biota they had just had a close encounter with.

Once I began my career as a professional marine scientist, I kept an eye out for teachable opportunities.  I was the first science professor to be hired at Bryant College (now Bryant University) in two decades when I joined the faculty in 1990. Bryant College was a business specialty school. There was very little interest in attending science courses. My role in that school was to change that idea, and I did.

I brought in STEM education before it was known as STEM. We mapped the campus pond with echo sounders, sampled the sediment with sonar devices, and built a remote-controlled boat that took pond water samples and analyzed the contents while moving about.  Through these projects, business students analyzed underwater imagery collected in a local reservoir with sound waves using side scan sonar. In short order, we had students knocking down the doors of our science department because they heard they could “learn while doing.”  My faculty developed the first science minors for the school in Biotechnology and Environmental Science, both to support the school’s primary mission as a business specialty school. We had a blast, the students had a blast, and nearly fifteen years after leaving that post I still hear from those students.

Since the 80s I’ve been working in the ocean exploration field and have
become enamored with the use of Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs) to
explore underwater.  The early ROVs were prohibitively expensive for
individuals, but I looked at them and thought, “How hard would it be to
make one myself?”  So, armed with knowledge of electricity garnered from
my life-long hobby of building model trains, and a supply of bathtub
silicone sealant, PVC pipes, and cable ties, I built a working
underwater robot for $150.

Fast-forward to 2009: I was sitting in a staff meeting and got assigned
to work at a  “watermens’ festival.” I was supposed to entertain kidlets
by taking a dead flounder, smearing it with paint, and rubbing it onto a
white t-shirt. Inside I politely refused this task…and set about
thinking about a better way to spend my Saturday at this event.  My mind
went to all the PVC pipe I had in my shop for building ROVs and I
thought, “Let’s build buoys; This will be easy and fun.”

I went home, grabbed my PVC pipes and connectors, and built a “perfect”
buoy about three feet tall. I filled my fish-cleaning sink to the brim
with water and proudly launched my buoy. It tipped over. I had failed.  I
took this as a “teachable moment” and saw that my center of gravity was
too high. I dismantled the buoy, made it shorter, lowered the center of
gravity, and re-launched it. This one floated perfectly.  Then, I went
and bought an indoor/outdoor thermometer and attached it to my buoy. I
threw the outdoor wire with the sensor into the water and attached the
readout thingy to the buoy. “There,”I exclaimed to myself, “This is now
an Observation Buoy.”

This project has become “Build-a-Buoy,” in which I go to elementary
school classrooms (down to kindergarten) and say, “This morning I was on
the Internet and saw that the world record for a small buoy holding
golf balls is 15, can you guys help me break the record?” With that, we
turn the kids loose with PVC pipe, Frisbees, plastic cable ties, and
golf balls, and have them break the record. These kids go away from the
program knowing there are two types of buoys: one that marks “underwater
roads” and another that collects data about the water they’re in.

So, bottom line: I’ve been working in the oceanographic field as a
scientist for more than thirty years and teaching for the same amount of
time. Through my early experience as an academic in what was then a
business school, I developed a belief that the only reason students are
business majors is that along the way they had a lousy science teacher. I
have made it a major life goal to effect a new way of teaching science,
technology, engineering, and math (STEM) that brings the material to
the students in contagious, invisible ways. Don’t tell them they’re
learning physics or science or math; “hide” it in the lessons and then
show them what they learned after the fact. It’s a really, really fun
way to learn, and a really, really fun way to teach.

That’s all for now…in my next post, I’ll show you how to build your own underwater robot!

-Doug Levin

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