Big ideas and little robots: Using the OpenROV in interdisciplinary STEM projects

portrait-joeyJoey Maier is a biology professor at Polk State College where he uses every possible opportunity to encourage his students to spend time in the water, play with technology, and do #CitizenScience. As an undergraduate, he did a stint as an intern for Mark Xitco and John Gory during their dolphin language experiments.  He then spent the years of his M.Sc. at the University of Oklahoma thawing out and playing with bits of decaying dolphin.  After discovering that computers lack that rotten-blubber smell, Joey became a UNIX sysadmin and later a CISSP security analyst.  

While his pirate game is weak, he is often seen with a miniature macaw on his shoulder. His spare time is spent SCUBA diving and trying to hang out with people who have submersibles.  You can follow him on Twitter or Facebook.


There’s a Klingon bird of prey hanging from the ceiling in my office.

I may teach biology, but at heart I’m a sci-fi nerd.  Naturally, I’m interested in futurism, robots, lasers and all manner of techy paraphernalia.  I’d been watching the OpenROV project for a while, but hadn’t gotten one yet.  They were obviously awesome little machines that gave me a serious case of gadget envy, and I knew that some of our students would love to pilot an ROV.  I needed a much better reason than that, however, to justify getting one.  There’s no line item in our budget for, “Wow, that’s cool!” and I was fairly certain that the college administration would tend to favor lower cost and more familiar forms of student engagement

Photo courtesy Joey Maier.

Photo courtesy Joey Maier.

This tweet changed everything.  When I found out that Andrew had designed a mini-Niskin bottle, the wheels in my head started turning.  Assembling an OpenROV would, naturally, be a very STEM-oriented project.  The times our students piloted the ROV could become water sampling field trips, and the kids could analyze their samples back at school as a laboratory activity. If students recorded the process, they could make a short film. I mulled over the possibilities and bounced ideas off of my dive buddies during the hours we spent traveling to and from the coast. Read More

Happy Fun Science FRIEDay – Glass Frogs

Raise your hand if you realized there were frogs so translucent you could see their innards? Ok if you actually raised your hand while reading this, kudos, but put it down now. Glass frogs are tiny green organisms whos organs are visible from their underside given the translucent nature of their bellies. There were 148 species of glass frogs, all of which reside in Central and South America.  Well make that 149 species of glass frogs now! Recently a new species of glass frog, Hyalinobatrachium dianae, was discovered in in the forested mountains of eastern Costa Rica.

A new species of glass frog named Hyalinobatrachium dianae. (Photo credit: Brian Kubicki)

A new species of glass frog named Hyalinobatrachium dianae. (Photo credit: Brian Kubicki)

The frog is nocturnal and stands out from other glass frogs because of its long, thin feet and black-and-white eyes. This new species also boasts a distinct call, which frogs produce to attract females. This frogs call is a long tiny whistle similar to the noise produced by insects, which helps explain why this frog went unidentified for so long.

Glass frogs are tanslucent, so their organs are visible. (Photo credit: Brian Kubicki)

Glass frogs are tanslucent, so their organs are visible.
(Photo credit: Brian Kubicki)

You can view this study in its entirety at the journal of Zootaxa.

 

Happy FSF!

Dipping a Toe in the Confluence

North Carolina is well known for both its distinctive barrier islands (making Pamlico Sound the largest lagoon in the U.S.) and highly productive fisheries.  Both of these features exist in large part because North Carolina sits that the point where two of the largest ocean currents in the Atlantic meet. From the north, the Labrador Current meanders from the Arctic Circle along the Canadian, New England, and Mid-Atlantic shorelines and crashes into the Gulf Stream at Cape Hatteras, deflecting this warm current off its own shore-hugging course from the south and out across the Atlantic Ocean.  Aside from literally defining the shape of the Outer Banks, the collision zone represents the boundary between temperate waters to the north and subtropical waters to the south.  This presence of this border means that, depending on the time of year and local weather conditions, you can catch just about any marine fish native to the Northwest Atlantic Ocean off of the Outer Banks.

This satellite image of sea surface temperatures shows the Gulf Stream (warm red current coming from the south) meeting the Labrador Current (cold purple current coming from the north). Image from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (whoi.edu).

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Ocean Things to Be Thankful For: Megalodon is Dead, but We Still Have Sharks (and Whales)

This time of year, it’s appropriate to think of things to be thankful for.  This being an ocean-focused blog, I’d like to share something ocean-related that I’m thankful for, and hopefully spread a little Ocean Optimism in the process.  What I’m thankful for is that Carcharocles megalodon is extinct.  This may not seem like cause for optimism, but honestly the present-day ocean and Megalodon are better off without each other.  And while we may not have 50-foot sharks around anymore (at least not the superpredatory kind), there are actually a lot of species we know and love that have either outlasted Megalodon or are only around because the big beast isn’t around anymore.

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An open letter to my newborn niece

Dear Tinsley,

Welcome to the world. I know it must feel like a very small world right now–just big enough to keep you safe and sheltered and loved–but trust me, as you keep growing, so will the world. Even after you stop growing, it will keep getting bigger. This big, old world that you have suddenly appeared in is huge and strange and beautiful and mysterious. There is more to discover in this world than all of us who have ever lived, working together, can ever know. Even before you can speak, you will think things and know things that no one has ever thought or known before. That is wonderful.

We are explorers. Not just your aunt and uncle, or your family, but all of us: this whole, gigantic group of people that call ourselves “humanity”. Today, there are over 7 billion of us and every last one, every person you will ever meet, can trace their heritage back, through thousands of millennia, to a small tribe of primates somewhere on the African savannah  We were explorers then, too. This tribe made its way across Europe and Asia. They sailed across the Pacific to Australia and a thousand tiny islands. They marched across the Bering Sea–land once connected Alaska to Russia–and traveled all the way down to the tip of South America. And, no matter how far they traveled, no matter how much they explored, the world just kept getting bigger.

We’re still exploring, today. We’ve built an enormous machine called the Large Hadron Collider–some say it’s the most complicated machine humanity has ever built—that allows us to explore the tiniest things in the universe: the sub-atomic particles that hold our world (and every world) together. We’ve even begun to explore beyond our own world. We have massive telescopes that allow us to explore distant galaxies. We’ve built probes that have left our own solar system. We have satellites orbiting Jupiter and Saturn. This summer, we landed a robot on Mars. It has already discovered that Mars was once more like our own world than we previously believed. We named that robot “Curiosity”.

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The importance of being Aquaman, or how to save the Atlantean from his briny fate

Aquaman has an unpleasant lunch. From New 52 Aquaman #1

Aquaman has an unpleasant lunch. From New 52 Aquaman #1 DC Comics.

Two weeks ago, I challenged the world to consider how the greatest hero in the DC Universe would fair if forced to survive in the real world. The result was a hypothermic, brain-dead lump of jerky with brittle bones forced to suffer through constant screams of agony even as he consumes sea life at a rate that would impress Galactus. In short, the ocean is a rough place, even for Aquaman.

Since that post made its way across the internet, several people have asked me to discuss what adaptations Aquaman would need to survive in this, science-based, ocean. So I went back to my comic books and my textbooks to assemble an Aquaman with a suite of evolutionary adaptations that would allow a largely humanoid organism to rule the waves, trident triumphantly raised.

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The horrifying physiological and psychological consequences of being Aquaman

Aquaman. DC Comics.

Aquaman. DC Comics. A rational response to seal poaching is to lob a polar bear at the aggressors.

Aquaman may not be everybody’s favorite superhero, but since his creation in 1941, he has been among DC’s most enduring icons. During the Golden Age of comic books, he held his own against Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. Silver Age Aquaman was a founding member of the Justice League. His powers, tied to the ocean, forced writers to create a compelling, complex hero with explicit limitations. In the early days, when Superman’s strength was practically infinite, and Batman’s brilliance was unmatched, Aquaman had to become more than just a superhero, he had to be a person.

If Superman existed to show us how high the human spirit could fly, and Batman to show us the darkness within even our most noble, Aquaman is here to show us the world that triumphs in our absence. The ocean is not ours, and no matter how great our technology, we will never master it as we have mastered land, but Aquaman has. Through this lonely ocean wanderer, we can experience a world that we can never truly command. In many ways, Aquaman was stronger than the Man of Steel and darker than the Dark Knight. He knew loneliness that the orphan and the alien exile never could.

Roll on, thou deep and dark blue Ocean – roll!
Ten thousand fleets sweep over thee in vain;
Man marks the earth with ruin – his control
Stops with the shore; — upon the watery plain
The wrecks are all thy deed, not does remain
A shadow of man’s ravage, save his own,
When for a moment, like a drop of rain,
He sinks into thy depths with bubbling groan,
Without a grave, unknell’d, uncoffin’d, and unknown.

Byron

Even though Aquaman had to fight harder, endure the jokes of other, less limited heroes, and find relevance in an ecosystem hostile to the humans that had to empathize with him, Aquaman was never forced to confront the truly horrifying consequences of life in the ocean.

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Happy World Oceans Day!

Today, June 8th, is World Oceans Day! Get out there and let the world know how much the ocean just makes you want to dance in celebration! The Smithsonian set a fairly high bar last year with its dancing flash mob in the Sant Ocean Hall. For the less rhythmically inclined, check out what events are happening by you.

This year also marks the advent of a whole month of ocean love with Obama’s proclamation of National Oceans Month. He opens his proclamation with:

“Our oceans help feed our Nation, fuel our economic engine, give mobility to our Armed Forces, and provide a place for rest and recreation. Healthy oceans, coasts, and waterways are among our most valuable resources — driving growth, creating jobs, and supporting businesses across America. During National Oceans Month, we reaffirm our commitment to the oceans and celebrate the myriad benefits they bring to all Americans.”

Obama also reminds us of our maritime heritage:

“President John F. Kennedy once told us, “We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea — whether it is to sail or to watch it — we are going back from whence we came.” During National Oceans Month, let us celebrate our heritage as a seafaring Nation by instilling an ethic of good ocean stewardship in all Americans.”

So find your spirit of nationalism, heritage, nature’s romanticism, or whatever inspires you most about the rolling sea – go forth and celebrate and bring the spirit of stewardship to others!

Core Themes for 2012: A renewed sense of wonder

In the past four years, we took our readers from the remote shoals of the Skeleton Coast to the unfathomable depths of the western Pacific. We touched the coasts of every continent, plumbed the depth of every ocean. Throughout this shared journey, the unspoken, implicit rationale, the very heart of our passion, the reason that any of this is worth doing, is that the ocean is awesome. When I say awesome, I don’t mean awesome in some mundane, biblical sense of fear and wonder when staring into the face of god; I’m talking about something much greater than our fragile brains can comprehend.

We have sailed so far, in these four years, and in this voyage I fear that we have found ourselves, like Ishmael, in “the damp, drizzly November of [our] souls.” The conversation at Southern Fried Science has changed, become more cynical, fatalistic, and driven by threats facing the ocean, rather than reasons why we value it. What once was a sea of boundless potential is now cast in bondage to statistics, benefit analyses, weights and measures, action items. In a way, this shift was inevitable. The ocean is in trouble, the world is changing, and the less we understand it, the more we will lose. Without someone to mark the ledger, to take the bearing, the ship is lost.

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