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Discovery
High School Students Build Antarctic Submersible

Two female high school graduates build an underwater, camera-equipped "rover" that can operate beneath polar ice

Photo shows Gretchen Hofmann and Tom Crombia carrying out a "field repair" on the rover.

Gretchen Hofmann and Tom Crombia carry out a "field repair" on the rover using duct tape.
Credit and Larger Version

April 14, 2008

Shipping and assembling some scientific instruments in Antarctica can cost millions of dollars, thanks in part to the logistics needed to get materials and personnel to the southernmost continent on Earth.

But a relatively meager $5,000 investment returned a wealth of experience for students at a California High School and the research team with whom they worked at McMurdo Station, the National Science Foundation's (NSF) logistics hub in Antarctica.

Using "off-the-shelf" materials and working with graduate students and technicians from marine biologist Gretchen Hofmann's laboratory at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB), two female graduates of Cabrillo High School in Lompoc, Calif., built an underwater, camera-equipped "rover" that appears to be able to meet the challenges of the harshest environments on Earth.

The submersible rig has been dubbed M'RAJE (pronounced "mirage"), from the first initials of its creators, and it is providing Hofmann and her team with an extra set of eyes to observe fish in their natural environments--a task made difficult in waters frequently covered by many meters of ice.

Hofmann studies the environmental genomics of Antarctic fishes and how they respond to variations in water temperatures, responses that could tie closely to climate change.

Competitive Roots

For Hofman, the melding of research and education is a serious priority. M'RAJE was built by Ryan Garner and Amanda Wilson, both high-school seniors at Cabrillo High at the time. The two worked closely with graduate students Jessica Dutton, Mackenzie Zippay and Elizabeth Hoaglund in Hofmann's lab to turn the design into a workable prototype.

"I really like how Gretchen found these girls and emphasized the 'women in science' dimension of the project," noted Dutton, who acted as a liaison between Hofmann's laboratory and the rover team.

Back in 2005, when they were juniors, Garner and Wilson were members of a team at Cabrillo that competed and placed highly in the Marine Advanced Technology Education (MATE) Center's Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) design competition. 

Working with Ali Whitmer, the director of education at UCSB's Marine Science Institute, and Robert Ranard and Shirley Pillus, who coached the winning 2005 team, Hofmann encouraged Garner and Wilson to design a rover that was better adapted to polar waters.

"We wanted it to be specifically designed to do research in Antarctica," said Dutton. "We knew the design would have to take into account things like how big a hole we are able to drill in the ice," an access point for the ocean.

Fresh Set of Eyes

Although scuba divers usually assist Hofmann's team in scouting the underwater landscape, a successful rover design could complement the work that human divers can do. For example, the rover has a maximum tether length of 100 feet, which allows it to operate at the outer limits of safe diving for humans.

"We've never really been able, ourselves, to look at the habitat down there," said Dutton. "But we can take a rover out as a team and operate it independently."

M'RAJE made roughly 10 successful dives during the last Antarctic research season, between October and December 2007.

Shortly after M'RAJE was successfully tested in the Antarctic, the 2007 international ROV competition--sponsored by the NSF-supported MATE Center in Monterey, Calif.--was held in St. John's, Newfoundland, in Canada. M'RAJE successfully competed in the previous year's MATE competition.

In recognition of the International Polar Year (IPY), the 2007 international ROV competition challenged students to design and build ROVs for operation in polar environments. The competition also challenged students to increase their understanding of polar regions and how these regions impact--and are being impacted by--global climate.

-- Peter West, (703) 292-7761 pwest@nsf.gov  

This Behind the Scenes article was provided to LiveScience in partnership with the National Science Foundation.

Investigators
Gretchen Hofmann

Related Institutions/Organizations
University of California-Santa Barbara

Locations
California
Antarctic

Related Programs
Advanced Technological Education
Antarctic Organisms and Ecosystems
Centers for Ocean Sciences Education Excellence
OCE Education

Related Awards
#0440799 Towards an Understanding of Protein Homeostasis in Cold-adapted Antarctic Fish
#0703197 Marine Advanced Technology Education Resource Center
#0302905 Marine Technology Education Center
#0215225 Collaborative Research - California Centers for Ocean Science Education Excellence

Related Websites
LiveScience.com: Behind the Scenes: High School Students Build Antarctic Submersible: /news/longurl.cfm?id=65
LiveScience Video: Under Antarctic Ice: /news/longurl.cfm?id=66
LiveScience Image Gallery: Extreme Living: Scientists at the End of the Earth: /news/longurl.cfm?id=40
All About Antarctica: http://www.livescience.com/antarctica/

Photo shows Gretchen Hofmann using a towel to cut out reflected sunlight.
Gretchen Hofmann uses a towel to cut out reflected sunlight from the rover's navigation screen.
Credit and Larger Version

Photo of two people lowering a device into a hole in the ice.
Jessica Dutton (left) reaches out to deploy the underwater, camera-equipped "rover."
Credit and Larger Version



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