Expanding Horizons by Mapping the Seafloor

Wooster, OH – Last weekend, The College of Wooster hosted the Expanding Your Horizons conference. About 240 fifth- and sixth-grade girls participated in hands-on science workshops on computer science, math, geology, chemistry, biology, physics, and neuroscience. This year, I went back to my roots in marine geology to run a workshop on how we see what’s on the seafloor.

Pre-workshop selfie, complete with “I love rocks” name tag and photo of the Alvin submersible to jumpstart our conversations.

I put together a version of this activity about how geologists “see” under ice, the ocean, or inside the Earth. Most of the girls guessed that we use sonar to measure the depth of the ocean floor, and this short video was helpful for understanding how sonar works. Each group of girls was given a shoebox containing a mystery letter. They used their “sonar straws” to probe the bottom of the shoebox. They plotted their measured depths on their grid and used their data to interpret the letter in the box.

Poking straws into boxes seems not-at-all scientific and maybe a little silly at first, but the girls starting making and testing hypotheses pretty quickly.

You can see the map of “hits” and “misses” as they record the results of their hypothesis testing.

We found that the easiest letters to identify were those that had right angles, like “I” and “E.” Letters with triangles (like “N”) or curves (like “S” and “C”) were harder to identify.

Along the way, we learned about reproducibility and sampling strategy. As it turns out, if your data point is wrong, or all of your data are clustered in one corner of the map, it’s hard to make an interpretation. Still, each session managed to collect enough data to interpret the word “S-C-I-E-N-C-E” when the groups brought their maps together.

We watched part of a video on women in oceanography and I told them about Deep Sea Dawn, an inspirational woman oceanographer who maps the ocean floor and builds Legos! The girls asked incredible questions about what it’s like to be out at sea and about my favorite rock (basalt, of course). Finally, we watched a video about how we shrink styrofoam cups when we conduct deep-sea research and I showed them some of the cups from my cruises.

Their enthusiasm and energy were the best reminders of why I do what I do. I’m so grateful to all of my colleagues and educators everywhere who work hard every day to inspire the next generation of young geoscientists.

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One Response to Expanding Horizons by Mapping the Seafloor

  1. Mark Wilson says:

    Love that straw exercise. Yay marine geology! Nice work and outreach.

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