By Craig Harriman, Staff Writer
Saturday’s gentle rain didn’t stop families from turning up at the Jere A. Chase Ocean Engineering Laboratory for Ocean Discovery Day, a collection of research experiments, visual presentations and marine related children’s activities that were available throughout the University of New Hampshire facilities.
Ocean Discovery Day was a two-day event with activities at the engineering laboratory and the Judd Gregg Marine Research Complex in Newcastle, New Hampshire.
“The goal of Ocean Discovery Day is to open up the research facilities here so that students know about all the cool research that is going on and can see themselves as the scientists and researchers here, and will consider a career in the ocean sciences,” said Tara Hicks Johnson, outreach coordinator for the Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping.
“We also want to invite the community down to increase awareness of all the programs that are available,” she said. “And make sure that the kids know that this is an option for them if they are interested in ocean sciences or marine life.”
More than 1000 children were bused to the Jere A. Chase Ocean Engineering Laboratory for Ocean Discovery Day on Friday, and Saturday it was open to the public.
The attendees had many white tents under which to escape the rain and learn more about specific elements of marine conditions and research being done.
Tanks of local sea life filled with starfish, crabs, shrimp and others start you off on your marine journey, an active display where the guide will help handle the sea life and get a “feel” for it.
You can learn about “flinking,” the point where you are neither floating nor sinking, using a mini sub to test buoyancy.
Operating a small robotically operated vehicle (ROV) in a pool and painting your favorite fish were must-stops in the lot of exhibits.
Attendees discovered New Hampshire’s volcanic hotspot history and the Ossipee Caldera — which was taller than Mt. Washington when it erupted 115 million years ago —, and compared the same rock types that came from Rye, New Hampshire, and the west coast of Africa when the two continents were part of the same land mass.
Many children challenged themselves to build a superior Lego house set on a bed of sand — modeling clay — that could withstand the waves created by a hand powered wave tank they pump up themselves. Results varied between great successes and colossal failures.
Following the fish on the floor during the self-guided tour of the facilities, you were able to see the large pool where divers demonstrated their equipment and visitors could pilot a small Sea Perch ROV tethered to the controls modeling the real thing.
In the Telepresence room on the second floor of the Chase facilities, you found the walls lined with screen after screen. On Saturday, three screens displayed live feeds from two research vessels, the NOAA Okeanos Explorer and the E/V Nautilus, as the ships and their ROVs explored the ocean depths.
The purpose of the Telepresence console is to allow researchers that cannot be on the vessel to interactively participate in the exploring. Those watching can call in and comment and advise on the data being captured by the ROVs as they operate.
On Okeanos, a biologist identified a sea spider that scurried past the camera and a geologist explained rock formations and their significance as they ran a commentary describing what the ROV, built at UNH, was seeing through its high-definition cameras as it was piloted through the depths of Ryan Canyon about 150 miles south of Montauk, New York, 1400 meters down, sliding along the continental shelf.
Derek Sowers, a Ph.D. student in Oceanography, was in the Telepresence room detailing landforms and guiding visitors through the many video feeds.
Sowers works as a NOAA contractor for Ocean Exploration and Research and helps plan exploration trips for the Okeanos out of its home port in Rhode Island.
“UNH is unique for sea floor mapping, and the scientists here have mapped more than anyone else in the world,” Sowers said. “It is a really amazing faculty that works here, and we come to UNH to learn from them and then get the applications out to the researchers.”
The Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping is a joint program between UNH and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a federal agency focused on the condition of our oceans and atmosphere.
Another very popular spot was the Data Visualization Lab where researchers were demonstrating how data can be visually adapted to be understood in many different ways.
The children were thrilled watching data from a tagged whale that was displayed as a path with distinct markers that filled the three six-foot vertical screens with the sounds of the whale; a whale character that displayed the animal’s yaw, pitch and roll; and explanations of what the animal was doing and why.
These animals were tagged for 24 hours by researchers at UNH and then the analysis of the data can determine habits, energy use, strokes and breathes for example, so scientists can better understand the underwater behavior and different species.
Turtles, seals and whales have all been tagged to help pick out patterns, listen to the animals’ sounds in their natural environment and monitor how the animals behave in the oceans.
“We are doing new things with data that has never been done before,” researcher Briana Sullivan said. “Using supplemental data were are helping the mariner in innovative ways.”
“Chart of the Future” is Sullivan’s project with NOAA’s marine chart division. She is creating interactive and real time maps for navigation providing mariners with visual data to help them see things in new ways.
These visual data presentations also included debris tracking from Hurricane Sandy, sediment transport due to tides and storms along the Sea Coast and many others that help scientists monitor the health of our marine ecosystems.
Scott Loranger is a second-year graduate student of Oceanography at UNH studying bubbles in the ocean’s water column.
Loranger’s project consisted of “Using sonar to monitor a plume of oil droplets under water and figuring out whether the concentration is being eaten by bacteria, which is good and shows it is breaking down, or whether the droplets are coalescing and remain in the environment, which is bad,” he said.
You can press one of three buttons that disperse air into a tank of water, and then see those bubbles on two monitors as sound waves show how the bubble is orientated in the water. Different types of bubbles and bubbles made of different substances behave in certain ways telling researchers what is happening beneath the waves.
Nearby, children were jockeying for a position around the Augmented Reality Sandbox. A project created at the University of California Davis using an Xbox Kinect, a projector, a desktop computer with a decent graphics card and a typical sandbox, all connected to create an interactive topographical map projected onto the sand.
The children made hills and dug valleys as the program projected the changing lines of elevation and gradient on the sand. When the light was blocked, rain would form as a blue line and the path of the water could be followed downhill into the valleys.
“There are many things that UNH [leads] in, and I don’t think enough people know that,” Hicks Johnson said. “Being able to open the doors and invite people in so they can see that creates more advocates for us, and let them know it’s all right here at UNH.”
The Ocean Day Program is funded by the School of Marine Science and Ocean Engineering at UNH, the Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping and the New Hampshire Sea Grant Program.
“Friday’s event was a really big success, we had a lot of school groups and home-schooled groups here. The kids were excited to be here, engaged in the activities, and the teachers are happy to give the kids something that is fun as well as educational,” Hicks Johnson said. “It’s fun to see the kids learning something when they don’t even realize it. Saturday’s event was a bit smaller, but more families come out and explored together.”