Hydrothermal-vent expedition educational experience for all students

June 09, 2009

University Park, Pa. — An international team of scientists, led by Penn State Professor of Biology Charles Fisher, returned to port on June 8 after completing a research expedition to collect data about the creatures that live under extreme conditions near deep-sea hydrothermal vents. Not only did the researchers acquire valuable scientific information during their three-weeks at the Lau basin in the South Pacific Ocean, but they also brought 1,200 middle-school students along for the ride -- a virtual ride, that is.

The cruise was the culmination of a project called FLEXE (From Local to Extreme Environments), which began as a pilot project in January. "FLEXE is a joint effort between scientists and educators with a goal of connecting middle-school students from around the world with the remote, extreme environments of hydrothermal vents," said Elizabeth Goehring, an education-outreach specialist in the Penn State Department of Biology and the FLEXE project's director. FLEXE is part of the GLOBE program, an international, web-based science-education program funded by NASA and the U.S. National Science Foundation.

Since January, 1,200 students from four countries have been participating in the pilot project. They have been learning about hydrothermal-vent ecosystems from their classrooms using materials provided by the scientists. Their projects have included, for example, analyses of temperature data that the scientists collected on previous cruises.

On this most recent cruise, the research team collected data on the physiological ecology of hydrothermal-vent animals. "The Lau basin hydrothermal-vent biogeographic region is different from those where most of the previous intensive studies of vent animals have occurred," said Fisher. "All of the species are different and different types of animals dominate."

To study the physiological ecology of the animals, the team is measuring the chemistry and temperatures around the animals; conducting manipulative experiments in which they analyze changes in vent fluid as it flows through communities; observing how the animals behave when they are moved from one environment to another; and conducting experiments on the ship with live animals in pressure vessels to examine their physiological capabilities and responses to variations in temperature and chemistry under controlled conditions.

"Because of the dynamic and energetic nature of vent environments, natural community succession can occur relatively rapidly. We have observed consistent changes in the composition of communities over time that will allow us to better gauge the age of communities and also to predict how they will change naturally," said Fisher. "One surprise to me is how stable some of the hydrothermal-chimney communities are.  Several that we studied three and four years ago have hardly changed at all."

Fisher said that the area in which the team is studying, as well as numerous other hydrothermal-vent areas in that part of the world, is currently being explored by deep-sea mining companies. "Understanding the physiology of the animals and the successional processes of natural communities will be essential in order to evaluate both the potential and actual impacts of these commercial activities," he said.

As the researchers collected their data, they made some of it available to the high-school students. "We aren't able to take 1,200 kids along with us on a research cruise, but we hope that the FLEXE program comes close to our goal of bringing the hydrothermal-vent ecosystems to the kids," said Goehring. "It's exciting and engaging science for these students."

During the cruise, the research team also interacted with the students through a "phone call to the extreme," in which a small group of students phoned the scientists on board the ship and asked them questions that they had pooled from the larger group of students. The call was webcast by GLOBE to allow other students to listen in. "The students asked wonderful questions because, by the time the cruise took place, they already had been studying the subject for a few months, using materials that we had provided to them," said Goehring. For example, during the call, one student asked about the conditions that would be necessary to keep deep-sea animals alive at the surface. Another wanted to know what would happen to the JASON II, the remotely controlled vehicle (ROV) that the team used to collect data, if it broke down near a vent.

In addition, the researchers shared their experiences with the students indirectly via blogs, slideshows, and online scientific exercises. "We want to help students understand how science really works so that they will become interested in it and perhaps pursue a career in science," said Goehring. Once the pilot group of students completes the program, Goehring and her colleagues will evaluate the students' attitudes about science, as well as their knowledge of the material.

FLEXE is funded by the National Science Foundation and led by Penn State in partnership with the National Science Foundation Ridge2000 and InterRIDGE research communities. It is one of four Earth System Science Project partners for GLOBE, a worldwide primary and secondary school-based science and education program (http://www.globe.gov). Other people involved with the grant include William Carlsen, Penn State director of the Center for Science and the Schools and professor of education.

  • Certain crabs and barnacles can live near hydrothermal vents.

    IMAGE: Charles Fisher
Last Updated November 18, 2010