“Rule number three: NO licking the batteries!” MBARI Instrument Technician Tom Hoover’s first priority was safety when prepping kids and ticket-holders for the “Build your own ROV” station at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute’s (MBARI) Open House on Saturday. What is an ROV? I’ll get to that in a minute. Every year, ticket reservations for this station run out as open house attendees, hailing from mostly between the Bay Area and Monterey, flood the premises to talk to MBARI staff, scientists, and engineers about their work and the science of oceanography. The open house features science exhibits, technology demonstrations, deep-sea videos, research presentations, engaging activities for all ages, and a twenty-foot long blow-up giant squid. Its popularity is a marker of the achievement of its main goals: to communicate MBARI’s relevant interests, activities, and research to the public and to inspire excitement and support for science.
Nowhere did I see more enthusiasm than at the “Build your own ROV” station. All right, all right- I’ll explain. The acronym “ROV” stands for Remotely Operated Vehicle. These can come in practically any shape or size and are used in oceanography to dive to and perform functions at depths to which it would be expensive and inefficient to send humans. They are different than remote control vehicles on land or air in that the term ROV generally refers to the underwater vehicle and they are tethered to the boat from which they are operated on a consol that looks like an intense video gaming system. The MBARI ROVs, Ventana and Doc Ricketts, are equipped with manipulator arms, high-definition video, and sampling and sensing equipment to collect information about the ocean floor and perform experiments.
The point of the station at the open house is to make the basics of ROVs accessible to the general public. Equipped with three small water pump motors attached to an operating box, a bucket of PVC pipes cut to different lengths, connectors, and floaties, kids and adults alike can build a frame, attach motors (one for up/down, one for left, and one for right), drop their model ROV in the pool (excuse me, test tank), hook up to the battery (don’t lick it!), and take it for a test drive!
What is interesting to observe is not the basic idea of the station (Tom’s spiel never changes all that much), but the complex and innovative ideas that the participants come up with. Some ideas work, some don’t, and some can be continuously modified for slightly different results each time. The approaches to the creative problem are just as diverse. Kids in particular may simply explore minor variations on the simple model Tom builds, attack the PVC with manic energy and excitement to build increasingly complex structures to putt around the tank, or find themselves at a loss for direction.
While it is heartening and amusing to see the kids who have the routine down pat and want to go through the exercise again and again, it is in those at a loss for ideas the MBARI open house is attempting to make a difference. Rather than give up or follow a rote recipe, volunteers spend time prompting these young students to form a hypothesis about how the motors will work together to move the ROV in the water, what the frame should look like, and how much floatation it needs to move freely. Hopefully by taking them through the scientific process, encouraging them when they doubt themselves and their ideas, and helping them make and fix mistakes, MBARI will help these kids start to develop the critical thinking tools and creative processes needed to enable them to explore science. The greatest successes of the MBARI open house are those who leave with more confidence in their abilities and thinking processes and with more enthusiasm for science. Meanwhile, Tom will continue to dive between batteries and those who would like to test the conducting potential of their tongues.