The Thomas Hardye School

Students Explore the Seabed (from the safety and comfort of their classroom!)

Students Explore the Seabed (from the safety and comfort of their classroom!)

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Four Year 9 classes of science students from the Thomas Hardye School have experienced what it is like to be at the forefront of scientific research thanks to the researchers aboard the Research Vessel James Cook, which has been exploring the deep sea environment in the Caribbean. Students were able to talk live to scientists thousands of miles away and watch in real time as a remote-controlled submarine explored a series of newly discovered hydrothermal vents on the slopes of an undersea mountain-at a depth of over 2300 m!

In the background, a screen showed the view from cameras on ISIS - a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) exploring the seabed over 2 km beneath the ship.  As they watched, an unusual species of starfish (previously unknown to science) was collected by a suction tube on the ROV. This was truly an amazing live moment to witness, something very few people will ever get to do and a first occasion for the expedition to link with a school!

Dr Jon Copley, of the National Oceanography Centre based at the University of Southampton, is the Principal Scientist leading an international team sent on a 3 week research trip to the Cayman Trough to map the sea bed and describe the unique species found there. Using a live Skype link to the James Cook, teachers and students were able to quiz Dr Copley about life on board the ship and the challenges and rewards of studying creatures found in such hostile conditions; at extremely high pressures, in perpetual darkness and in a place where scalding hot water gushes from chimney-like towers at over 350˚C!

Appropriately, the first live link-up took place on ‘Darwin Day’ which commemorates the birthday of the great scientist Charles Darwin. Year 9 students in Dr Rowe’s class were able to find out about the issues facing present-day scientists as they work around the clock studying the complex and unique animal communities that thrive around the deep sea vents. They were also able to learn about how modern research techniques are being used to uncover the secret lives of totally new species, and how these might have evolved from other similar organisms, something that Darwin himself had championed over 200 years earlier.

Dr Copley has worked closely with the Thomas Hardye School in recent years. In the autumn term he gave a fascinating lecture to our entire Year 9 about his research work and highlighted some of the problems facing the marine environment. This was arranged as part of a wider project, based at THS, looking at the problem of litter in the marine environment, which coincides with the International Year of Water Cooperation, and it is particularly relevant as we are a UNESCO Associated School.

It was really kind of Dr Copley to take the time to link up from half way around the world to share the very latest progress in his team’s research. In a sad twist to the story, Dr Copley explained how the team had found a drinks can lying on the sea bed at this previously unexplored site. This is a clear illustration of the fact that litter is spreading all over the planet and that apparently nowhere is beyond its reach.

Darwin Day is an international celebration of science held on or around February 12, the day that Charles Darwin was born on in 1809. Specifically, it celebrates the discoveries and life of Charles Darwin — the man who first explained biological evolution with his theory of natural selection. Charles Darwin himself would have surely have delighted in the fantastic opportunity that this technology now offers, allowing students to witness and take part in the discovery of a new species.

On 13 February, Darwin Day celebrations at the school changed tack with sixth form biology and ethics students taking part in inspiring workshops which examined the latest developments and issues surrounding two different and controversial evolutionary themes. A ‘Genetics and Ethics’ debate for Year 13 was led by Professor John Bryant from the University of Exeter and a ‘Genetic Modification’ debate for Year 12 was led by Professor Alan Gray from the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology.

To round off the week, Dr Copley (once again via live video-link), showed three other lucky classes of Year 9 students with Dr Gammon, Miss Pengelly and Mrs Jones, specimens of bristle worms and glass sponges that had just been retrieved by the ROV and discussed adaptations to life in the deep ocean, bringing a hot curriculum topic very much to life. Expedition colleague Dr Adrian Glover from the Natural History Museum also joined the discussion, describing finding whale bones on the ocean floor and the excitement of exploring previously unseen depths up to 5000m.

The experience of Skyping with scientists was something the students enjoyed and wished to repeat. Technically, the link worked well (- thanks due to the IT support given by Mr Holt) and the few intermittent ‘down’ moments gave the students pause time to reflect and think up fresh questions.

The discoveries and exploits of the current expedition can be seen on the expedition website: http://www.thesearethevoyages.net/index.html

BBC news also featured the expedition:  http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-21520404

February 2013