Testing Buoyancy with Kitchen Drogues

This post was written by educator Doug Levin. It’s Saturday morning, the sun is up, and I’m sitting here with a cup of hot tea looking out onto my tidal creek. The wind is blowing out of the west, but the tide is going out, emptying to the east. I know this through observation. The wind is pushing waves up the creek. At the same … Continue reading Testing Buoyancy with Kitchen Drogues

Celebrate DEEPSEA CHALLENGE with National Geographic Education!

Filmmaker (Titanic, Avatar, Terminator) and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence James Cameron has become the first person to complete a solo journey to Challenger Deep, the terminus of the Mariana Trench, and the deepest known point on planet Earth at nearly 7 miles below sea level.

Although it’s more like 2 leagues than 20,000, the DEEPSEA CHALLENGE mission has the potential to bring mysteries of deep-ocean worlds to light for scientists, students, and dreamers alike. This incredible moment in the history of modern exploration is being reported by major news organizations around the world today (see stories on the New York Times and CNN), and the National Geographic Education team could not be more excited to share in the fervor.

As the educational outreach arm of the National Geographic Society, the organization sponsoring DEEPSEA CHALLENGE along with Rolex, we have developed a complete suite of materials to help teachers bring this scientific expedition to conduct deep-ocean research into their classrooms.  Here is a quick overview of the Nat Geo Education materials available.

DEEPSEA CHALLENGE - National Geographic Education_IE_crop.jpgNatGeoEd.org/deepsea-challenge
The main DEEPSEA CHALLENGE education hub features maps, multimedia, reference materials, and more.  Below is a list of five favorite resources:

Learn about important milestones in underwater exploration, including the sinking of the Titanic and the inventions of Jacques Cousteau, through photos, illustrations, and maps.

  • Marine Ecosystem Illustrations

Explore the flora and fauna of ocean environments–from coral reefs to the deep sea–with these collections of beautifully detailed illustrations for grades 3-5 and 9-12.

Continue reading “Celebrate DEEPSEA CHALLENGE with National Geographic Education!”

Touch down! (not “touchdown”)

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.

In the narrative below, Doug imagines that he is James Cameron traveling to the bottom of  Challenger Deep, as the famous filmmaker and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence did yesterday, Sunday,
March 25, 2012. See actual quotes from a press conference with James
Cameron following the successful dive on the DEEPSEA CHALLENGE and the National Geographic Education Twitter feeds.


Filmmaker and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence James Cameron gives two thumbs-up as he emerges from the DEEPSEA CHALLENGER submersible after his successful solo dive to the Mariana Trench, the deepest part of the ocean. The dive was part of DEEPSEA CHALLENGE, a joint scientific expedition by Cameron, the National Geographic Society and Rolex to conduct deep-ocean research. Photo by Mark Thiessen/National Geographic.

What did it feel like at touch down when Mr. Cameron finally settled into the fine muck at the true bottom of the sea? He landed at the point in the ocean where the drain that empties the world’s ocean could be installed. (Note that I didn’t put an “s” on the end of that [ocean], because all of the oceans are connected).  

So, imagine years of dreaming, designing, and building.  “Test” dives to depths deeper than anyone has ever gone.  Just read the email that Mr. Cameron sent to Don Walsh back on March 7, 2012, to really get a colorful flavor of the operation.  From all that I’ve read, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the euphoria of reaching these ocean depths will be tempered with flashbacks to all of the work and tests that preceded this monumental achievement.  Kind of like entering college in your freshman year, and the final celebration that ensues when you throw your mortarboard into the air at graduation.  The realization of the moment is short-lived, and then it’s time to “get to work.”

Here’s what I imagine from the comfort of my living room, thinking about this while sipping hot tea and looking out my back window. I–James Cameron–climb into the sub and am lowered into the water, sealed up so tightly that outside sounds cannot be heard directly.  Headphones transmit the “whirr” of the crane and the chatter between the crew and divers surrounding the sub, as it’s gently lowered into the water. I pass through the zone where the waves lap against my view to the outside.  The straps are released and I am cleared to descend.

Continue reading “Touch down! (not “touchdown”)”

Email From Mr. Cameron to Mr. Walsh–A Dissection

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.

The following is a dissection of the March 12th email from James Cameron
to Don Walsh–co-pilot of the bathyscaphe Trieste that went down to
Challenger Deep in 1960–following Cameron’s successful 8,000-meter dive
to the bottom of the New Britain Trench.

This email speaks
volumes to what goes on in and outside of the submarine. I’ve dissected
each paragraph and inserted my interpretation of what might be going on
behind the words. Of course, including my explanation has lengthened the
email by an order of magnitude. However, I was blown away by how much
was revealed within the short communication, and I wanted to share my
reactions with you. In the copy below I’ve kept Mr. Cameron’s type
normal.  My responses are preceded by several dashes (—-) and are written in bold italics. 

DCV Light Wall-V5.jpg

Once at the bottom of the ocean, James Cameron has the capability to
remain on the sea floor for up to six hours to conduct science
Illustration Courtesy Acheron Project Pty Ltd.


8000m dive went very well. Not an unqualified success, since the
manip(ulator) was balky and my push core sediment sample washed out on
ascent because the sample door wouldn’t stow all the way, and because of
the speed of the flow over the vehicle on ascent (5 knots average).

—- At 8,000m, Mr. Cameron’s mechanical appendages would have been working
at pressures 800 times that experienced at the sea surface.  The
manipulator may have been balky because the pressures caused the
fittings that normally give the arm its agility to tighten.

—- A push core does exactly what its name suggests: A tube is
shoved into the sediment at the trench bottom and pulled back out to
collect a sample. First, a “core catcher” is placed in the end of the
core tube that enters the sediment; inverted metal or plastic fingers
keep the sample from falling out.  Once the core is pushed to its
refusal (i.e. the point at which it won’t go any deeper), the top is
capped to create air pressure. (If you’ve ever put your thumb over a
drinking straw, you know that you can remove the straw from a beverage
container without losing the liquid within. The liquid will then be
released when you remove your finger from the straw top.  Putting the
cap on top of the core should keep the contents from spilling out in
much the same manner.)

Continue reading “Email From Mr. Cameron to Mr. Walsh–A Dissection”

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.

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