Monday, May 28, 2012

Updated: High school robotics project to help Isle Royale staff monitor invasive species

By Michele Bourdieu
Outside the Portage Lake District Library, following a presentation about Isle Royale for kids and parents, Dollar Bay science teacher Matt Zimmer, second from left, chats with students, parents and kids during a demonstration of the student-designed Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs), or underwater robots, Zimmer and his students will take with them on a trip to Isle Royale this week. Also pictured are students Justin Rogan, left, and Samantha Richards. Nathan Olson, right, of Hubbell, accompanied his son Riley Olson, 6. (Photos by Keweenaw Now)

HOUGHTON -- A group of Dollar Bay High School students and their teacher, Matt Zimmer, will head for Isle Royale on the Ranger this Tuesday, May 29, after working all year on their Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs) -- underwater robots, designed and constructed in their Marine Robotics classes to monitor invasive species such as zebra mussels.

Victoria Kangas, one of the Dollar Bay High School students who helped make the ROVs in Matt Zimmer's Marine Robotics class, points out the LED headlights on one of the robots displayed in the Portage Library during the May 15 program -- the last in the the "Explore Your National Park" series of family programs presented at the library by Isle Royale National Park rangers.                   

Zimmer said this will be the first trip to Isle Royale for all 20 students, who will spend the night camping on the island and return on Wednesday, May 30.

"They'll take two ROVs with them and will train the rangers to operate them," Zimmer said.

"The students spent six hours on Saturday (May 26) working on the two ROVs and have planned a final work session for Monday (May 28, Memorial Day)," Zimmer wrote in an email follow-up message to Keweenaw Now on Sunday, May 27.

Some of the students demonstrated the ROVs in a tank of water outside the Portage Lake District Library on May 15, following a presentation by Isle Royale National Park Ranger Valerie Martin -- "Wade into Isle Royale" -- during which children had a chance to be "aquatic ecologists" and to learn about food chains and the lives of underwater creatures that live in the water surrounding Isle Royale, including some uninvited invasive species.

During her presentation "Wade into Isle Royale" at the Portage Library, Valerie Martin, Isle Royale National Park ranger, teaches children about habitat and leads them in a song about "Phytoplankton." (Video clips by Keweenaw Now)

Martin has done several of these family activities at the Portage Library and has a great rapport with the children, involving them physically in the adventure.

"My job is perfect for me because I do what I like to do best," Martin says, "to try to connect people to nature and get them excited about going out on their own to explore these things -- and I get to be silly and creative!"

In one of Ranger Valerie Martin's activities, children learn about food chains by playing the roles of creatures that eat one another.

Ranger Martin introduces the concept of invasive species with a father-son game in which Dad is an invasive zebra mussel, a species the robots are intended to monitor once they arrive on Isle Royale.

Valerie Martin explained that the Dollar Bay students' robotics project is a partnership with the Park Service. The students will actually be training the park staff in how to use the robots. Park staff will then give the students feedback so they can improve the robots.

Outside the Portage Library, Victoria Kangas shows children how to use a remote control with a computer monitor to operate the robots, which are in a water tank several feet away. The object is to get the robot to pick up an item from the bottom of the water tank.

Dollar Bay student Justin Rogan explains some parts of the robot.

Zimmer notes three purposes of taking the robots to Isle Royale:
  • First, they can inspect incoming vessels for invasive species such as zebra mussels.
  • Second, the robots can monitor the existing population of zebra mussels to see if they are reproducing.
  • Third, the robot acts as an ice breaker with the public so the rangers can talk to the public about zebra mussels through informal discussion.
"It's wonderful for the students," Zimmer said. "They learn concepts in science and then apply those concepts in a real-world situation."

The Dollar Bay S.O.A.R. (Student Organization of Aquatic Robotics) displayed this exhibit about their project in the Portage Lake District Library. (Click on photo for larger version.)

The robotics project is sponsored by the High School Enterprise, Square One Education Network and the Lake Superior Stewardship Initiative.

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