Students test the waters of marine technology at 'Makerfaire'

Groton — On board a Project Oceanology vessel off Bluff Point on Saturday, a group of students in blue and yellow life jackets clustered around a control panel to lower a small, remotely operated vehicle further into the water.

The students monitored the progress of the vehicle, powered by motors and equipped with a video camera, on a screen attached to the control panel.

"We're at the bottom!" a student shouted, prompting cheers. "We have landed!"

The students remotely moved the vehicle around to explore underwater life, with one student spotting a porgy. They learned during the marine technology workshop that the vehicles can not only record video but also carry the equipment that students earlier had learned to use to test the water's temperature, salinity, pH levels and carbon dioxide levels.

About 40 students in seventh through 10th grades, from southeastern Connecticut and across the state, were participating Saturday in the "Marine Makerfaire" workshop at Project Oceanology, located on the University of Connecticut's Avery Point campus, that focused on teaching youths about marine technology. Ignite, a program through Thames River Innovation Place, Spark Makerspace, Project Oceanology and BioCT Innovation Commons held the workshop, with funding from CTNext, Community Foundation of Eastern Connecticut and Pfizer Community Foundation, according to a news release.

The students went out on boat rides Saturday to learn applied marine technology, use instruments to test the water and learn about the advanced equipment that scientists use. They also learned Arduino programming, a skill to help them as they develop their own projects.

Molly Jacobs, director of curriculum and instruction for Project Oceanology, said she hopes students left at the end of the day with more knowledge about what they might want to measure about the ocean — and why — and excitement about what they might be able to design.

She said understanding the physical and chemical nature of the environment is key to finding the answers to questions, for example, whether storms are going to impact baby fish, why there aren't as many lobsters in Long Island Sound, or why there are so many more black sea bass than there used to be.

Jacobs also wants students to make the connection that it's not only professional scientists that can monitor the ocean, but the students can, too, by using the sensors they programmed in the workshop.

During the programming workshop led by instructors from Spark Makerspace, students received an introductory lesson on Arduino, a microprocessor.

Michael O'Connor, who teaches marine science at Waterford High School and serves as the chairman of the Project Oceanology board, said people are using the microprocessors on projects that range from testing water quality in their at-home fish tank to creating a robot to serve dinner. His students also are working on a project that includes integrating Arduino with sensors on a boat to measure characteristics of the water.

O'Connor said that with the huge center for marine technology in southeastern Connecticut, his idea was to get a group of students with professionals, such as from Spark Makerspace and professors at the University of Connecticut and the University of Rhode Island, to create a "marine maker community."

John Morgan, an eighth-grader at Clark Lane Middle School in Waterford, said he is interested in becoming a science teacher when he grows up, and the marine technology instruction on board the Project Oceanology vessel taught him how to test certain things that he might need to know in high school and beyond.

"I wanted to come because I plan to pursue marine biology in the future," said another participant, Zoey Donovan, 12, of Torrington.

Emma Palzere-Rae, Ignite program manager, said she hopes the event sparks in the youths an ongoing interest in technology and marine science, as well as a combination of the two in marine technology. For the kids already passionate about the field, she hopes the event has given them extra knowledge and helped keep them engaged.

"Ultimately, we hope some kids study this and end up working in the area and bringing innovation here," she said.

k.drelich@theday.com

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