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Exploring the Unknown and Inspiring Young Scientists

April 10, 2006

(April 4, 2006) Growing up in Wichita, Kan., Dr. Robert D. Ballard was initially drawn by the majesty of mountain ranges. However, when his family moved to San Diego, his fascination with the sea began. Luckily for him, he has been able to explore both, fulfilling his boyhood dream of being like Captain Nemo from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

In fact, he has completed more than 100 deep-sea expeditions. “The earth is a living organism,” he told the audience at the Tuesday morning Maurice Gurin Lecture on Philanthropy at the 43rd AFP International Conference on Fundraising in Atlanta. “When it’s cut, it bleeds magma. Where plates collide, tsunamis and earthquakes are the result. There are tens of thousands of active volcanoes under the sea.”

One important expedition involved following the mid-ocean ridge—comprising the highest mountains on the planet—that winds its way along the ocean floor among the continents, much like the seam on a baseball. While following the valley of the ridge, Ballard and his team found hydrothermal vents—much like chimneys that look like a giant pipe organ. At the tremendous depth where sunlight cannot penetrate, life abounds near the vents—a clue to how life may have begun on Earth.

Engaging Children through the Titanic

Despite these important scientific discoveries, they did not strike a chord with children. The discovery of the R.M.S. Titanic changed all that. On Sept. 1, 1985, 73 years after the magnificent liner struck an iceberg and sank beneath the icy waters of the North Atlantic, Ballard and his team found the ship in its watery grave 12,000 feet down.

“I find a rusty ship and I’m suddenly inundated with letters,” Ballard said. In fact, he received more than 16,000 letters from children in the first week alone after finding the ocean liner. What did children want to know? As Ballard explained, the first paragraph usually had the question, “What do I have to do to do what you’re doing?” In the second paragraph, the writer would implore, “The next time you go, can I go with you?”

Since 1989, middle-school children have been able to do just that. Each year, the JASON Project, which is headquartered in Ashburn, Va., engages middle-school students in a new and exciting Expedition each year. With the help of multimedia tools and cutting-edge technology, students become part of a virtual research community, accompanying real researchers in real time as they explore everything from oceans and rainforests to polar regions and volcanoes. Each JASON Expedition addresses the following three questions:

  1. What are the Earth’s physical systems?
  2. How do these systems affect life?
  3. What technologies do we use to study these systems, and why?

Mental couch potatoes need not apply. Students enrolled in the project are required to study hard—“mental push-ups,” Ballard calls it—and complete a specific curriculum in order to participate in the Expeditions. Approximately 1.5 million students are currently enrolled for the 2006 program.

The project gives the young students an opportunity to collaborate with each other, giving them skills, a pioneering spirit of adventure and a true sense of awe about the natural world around them. “When we get what I call a ‘jaw drop,’” Ballard explained, “I know we have a scientist.”

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