Center For Ocean Sciences Education Excellence COSEE TEK
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2013 LSAMP Ocean Science and Technology Challenge - 05.01.2013

This spring, COSEE-TEK collaborated with one of its foundational partners, the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP) to provide minority undergraduate students majoring in STEM-related fields the opportunity to immerse themselves in ocean science and technology. Following the LSAMP Northeast Alliance Winter Symposium at Storrs in January, a bright and diligent group of students and teachers from University of Connecticut and UMass-Amherst signed on to participate in the 2013 Ocean Science & Technology Challenge (OSTC).

The purpose of the OSTC was to have the students work together to design, build, and field test a sensor or sampling device in Long Island Sound (LIS). After a brief presentation from COSEE-TEK staff on coastal monitoring and ocean technology, teams from both universities identified an area of coastal environmental monitoring of interest, reviewed the existing technologies to address that theme, and honed in on a sampler or sensor to build from the ground up. Each team was assigned a COSEE-TEK mentor to assist in the project and the efforts were underway. The weeks that followed included research on the web, meetings and teleconferences, engineering design and review, ordering parts, and construction in the laboratory. Despite the challenges of an expedited timeline, full academic course loads, exams and research papers, and Spring Break, the teams identified the following projects and worked enthusiastically to have their technologies ready for the two day field experience at UConn-Avery Point on April 5-6, 2013.

Benthic monitoring array
Plankton/water sampler
The UCONN team built a benthic monitoring array using an existing frame to mount two GoPro hi-def cameras, LED lights, and a current meter based on the design by Vitalii Sheremet through the eMOLT program at NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center in Woods Hole, MA. This low-cost current meter was designed to distribute to lobstermen for attachment on their traps throughout the Gulf of Maine and was a perfect application for LSAMP effort.
The UMASS team designed and built a plankton & water sampler similar to a traditional Niskin or Van Dorn device. Their objective was to collect approximately 3 liters of water at multiple depths of the water column near the placement of the benthic monitoring array. Students would then investigate the quantity and diversity of plankton associated with warmer sunlit waters and nutrients in the surface layers of LIS.

On the morning of Friday April 5th, LSAMP students and teachers arrived bright and early at Avery Point with their materials/devices in hand, ready for the final assembly and the ability to test their technology out on the Sound. The first day was action packed with a meet-and-greet breakfast, review of the agenda, and final preparations in the laboratory before deployment of the benthic monitoring array from University of Connecticut’s R/V Lowell Weicker. The afternoon included a brief oceanographic cruise aboard Project Oceanology’s EnviroLab II and each student had the chance to pilot a VideoRay remotely operated vehicle (ROV) through an obstacle course in the test tank.

Weicker and EnviroLab II
University of Connecticut's R/V Lowell Weicker (left) and Project Oceanology's EnviroLab II (right)

Many of the students had never been on a research vessel and were able to quickly grasp the application of their inventions and other ocean technology in a real world context. Activities included;

  1. Measuring surface currents using a telescoping pole with a magnetic prop and in a more resourceful fashion of tossing crackers in the water and estimating drift speed.
  2. Investigating light attenuation using a Secchi disk and by dropping Peanut M&Ms in the water and tracking the time before they sank out of sight. The latter method proved a tasty alternative.
  3. Towing a plankton net, calculating volume based on tow speed and net size, and collecting water samples at various depths using a Van Dorn sampler.
  4. Profiling the water column using a conductivity, temperature, depth (CTD) sonde including measurements of dissolved oxygen.

One student referred to the experience as the “ultimate lab”! The students from UMass gained a great deal of insight to plankton/water sampling mechanisms when using the Van Dorn sampler. Until this point, the mechanics of water collection off a boat was only theoretical and it was hard to take into account factors such as water pressure, drift of the sampler, and concentration of plankton during early spring. That evening, they brought this knowledge back into the laboratory to make final adjustments to their sampler. Although they arrived at Avery Point with the necessary materials, the device partially constructed, and a solid understanding of the end game, they were dismayed with their lack of progress and one student referred to their collective effort as a “box of failure”. They used every bit of time and experience gained during the first day to see their project to fruition. Those that finished their projects retired to the hostile at Project Oceanology for a heated game of Apples to Apples ®.
On Saturday April 6th, everyone started the morning with a stiff cup of coffee (or Red Bull) and hearty breakfast at Avery Point’s own Salty Paws Restaurant. With the sun shining bright yet a cold breeze blowing, everyone boarded the EnviroLab II, eagerly anticipating the success of the plankton sampler in action and collection of nearly 24 hours of benthic monitoring data. The students assisted in deploying, recovering and processing a biological catch from an otter trawl that included a number of spider crabs, a small lobster and flounder. Meanwhile, Captain Turner and the crew of the Weicker recovered the benthic mooring and returned it to Avery Point, data and all. While still aboard the EnviroLab II, the UConn team could only look on across the water and anticipate the success of their project until returning to the dock, recovering the sensors, and analyzing the data & images.
Meanwhile, the UMass group was excited to learn that their plankton/water sampler worked quite well and they were able to collect water samples from the surface down to 8 meters water depth, the approximate depth of the benthic monitoring array. Their sampling device was no longer a “box of failure” but rather a fine tuned mechanism that could be used to collect data in the field! Observing the samples under a compound microscope, it was clear that three liters of seawater from LIS in early April did not provide enough plankton to quantitatively discern differences in primary productivity in the warmer, sunlit surface waters. The students were also surprised to see how quickly the voracious copepods gobbled up phytoplankton in the sample jars, illustrating the need for Lugol’s solution or formalin to preserve plankton samples.
Once back onshore, everyone gathered dockside for a group photo and filtered back into the classroom to review the data, reflect on their experiences, and provide some feedback on the second year of the COSEE-TEK/LSAMP collaboration. Much to the chagrin of UConn’s team, they discovered that the two GoPro cameras mounted to the seafloor frame were not properly initialized and no photos were collected in conjunction with the current data. As some of the more experienced oceanographic technicians from COSEE-TEK reassured the students, these are seemingly minute yet often overlooked steps that occasionally haunt scientists in the field. During their brief experience with underwater cameras, they learned the value of checking and re-checking your equipment. The good news was that their current meter was able to collect data.
All things considered, the first annual LSAMP OSTC was a big success and we all learned a great deal from the collaboration. In hindsight, many students had an initial apprehension of the potentially daunting task of building an ocean sensor or sampler. Many were unsure of themselves before visiting Avery Point but the fear was quickly lifted when they had the opportunity to work closely with COSEE-TEK staff and their peers to design, build, problem-solve and implement their technology. The hands-on experience from two days of field work at Avery Point will surely prove useful should any of the students go on to study or work in the field of oceanography. More importantly, they learned the value of teamwork, cross-discipline collaboration and communication - the 21st Century competencies they will need to succeed in the future.


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