Final adjustments are made; the safety harness and tending line are secured; the diver lowers himself into a hole cut through the ice. The water is 28 degrees F, one degree above the temperature at which salt water freezes. Another diver is already under the ice, video camera in hand. On the ice, researchers prepare to begin the experiment; one holds a cell phone, his back to the wind. Class is in session.
Research divers from the Naval Undersea Warfare Center (NUWC), Newport, RI are working with the Army’s Cold Regions Research and Engineering Lab (CRREL) in Lyme, NH to test a prototype radio communications antenna that someday may accompany submarines operating in the Arctic.
A teacher at the American School for the Deaf (ASD) in West Hartford, CT listens over her cell phone to the NUWC engineer’s commentary. She interprets his descriptions to her students as underwater video images arrive real time via the Internet. For over an hour, the students view the computer projector screen in their classroom as the divers install and make adjustments to equipment, and while scientific data is collected. A second camera enables them to see the above ice activities as well. They ask questions through the interpreter and watch as the engineer and diver respond.
What these ASD students were able to see was field engineering as it happens, unedited. The NUWC and CRREL team worked for three days on the salt water test facility, and with little additional effort were able to provide a brief hour-long snapshot of research underway to a group of college-bound science students. Had we not taken the time, this unique educational experience would have been lost.
It may be extremely difficult to bring a group of students to a remote location not typically suited to a field trip environment, as was the case at CRREL this past February. Yet, the ASD kids were provided with the next best thing; a front row seat at a computer screen, and the ability to interact with researchers remotely and in real time. We do have a great experience as well with online courses that help students get their GED. They can study at their own schedules and they can read the provided transcripts rather than not be able to hear and understand the spoken text.
As we at NUWC have shown, the Internet is readily available for connecting scientific and technological activities from somewhat remote locations directly into the classroom. While the equipment we currently use is not readily suited for use in the field, we are assembling a more reliable, portable system that will minimize the operational logistics. We hope that the simplicity of the final system will encourage other organizations to provide access to one-of-a-kind educational outreach opportunities that would otherwise be lost.