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Exploring the Depths of Science

Explorer Bob Ballard's JASON Project brings science alive.

IF SOMETHING IS DOWN THERE, hiding in the mysterious deep, blue sea, Robert Ballard, PhD, probably has checked it out. The oceanographer has become legendary for his work in underwater archaeology: discovering the wrecks of the RMS Titanic in 1985, the battleship Bismarck in 1989, and the aircraft carrier the USS Yorktown in 1998. He led development of remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), which enable scientists to observe and record scientific phenomena otherwise inaccessible to them.

Yet Bob Ballard's biggest accomplishment may be the way he's kept all of this science current. Sure, he publishes. Yes, he lectures. He even hobnobs with some of the most renowned scientists and researchers on the planet. But through a program called the JASON Project, Ballard broadcasts scientific expeditions over the Internet and into K-12 science classrooms around the world, empowering young teachers to inspire in students a lifelong passion for science and technology through real-world scientific discovery.

"What JASON can do is put kids into the field with experts, skipping over all of the interpreters who might dumb it down," says Ballard, who recently turned 65. "We're saying to these kids, 'Come with me out in the wild,' and taking them into the field. The kids see the scientist's passion. It's very powerful."

Case in point: the recent JASON curriculum on disappearing wetlands. In one segment, Ballard and Jacoby Carter, an ecologist with the National Wetlands Research Center in Louisiana, head out into the swamps with other scientists restoring Louisiana's coastal wetlands. This helps students understand what wetlands are, why they are disappearing, and how to best manage such ecosystems.

In 1989, riding the waves of Titanic celebrity, Ballard made videos available to bring the thrill of real scientific discovery into the classroom. He named it JASON after the mythological Jason and the Argonauts, who set out to explore the world. Now teachers can access Ballard's expeditions on the Web.

Today the JASON Project serves nearly 1.7 million students each year, and is used by some 33,000 teachers in the U.S. and abroad. Mary Cahill, who teaches sixth and seventh grade science at the Potomac School, in McLean, VA, has been involved with JASON since 1990. Cahill says the program makes students "feel that they're doing real science" and makes her a better teacher. "I learn something new every time," she says. "When I get excited, the children see that and it helps them become lifelong learners, too."

Matt Villano contributes to NRTA Live & Learn from Healdsburg, CA. This article was published in NRTA Live & Learn, Summer 2007.

Watch for new stories every Thursday in LIVE & LEARN, NRTA's publication for the AARP educator community.

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