Students design remotely operated oil spill response vehicles in Seward ocean science competition

By MARITA KLEISSLER, Education Specialist at Prince William Sound Science Center, and
WIL TUSHAUS, AmeriCorps Member at Prince William Sound Science Center.

The first place winning team from Homer working together to create their ROV.
The first place winning team from Homer working together to create their ROV.

Since 2012, Prince William Sound Science Center educators have taken remotely operated vehicle, known as “ROV,” kits to the Alaska Tsunami Ocean Sciences Bowl in Seward, where teams from across Alaska participated in the ROV Challenge.

This science bowl is a regional competition for Alaska high school students on topics related to the study of the oceans. Winning teams go on to compete against teams from across the United States. The challenge was one part of the bowl.
Students constructed the ROVs out of PVC piping. Bilge pumps were used as motors. To simulate the navigational precision and maneuverability needed for an oil spill cleanup, students maneuvered the ROVs through hula hoops, picked up a neutrally buoyant ring and placed it on an underwater hook, retrieved a beach ball and brought it poolside, and hovered in front of a target.

Teams were judged on how well they completed each task and how well they worked as a team. Homer, Dillingham, and Petersburg teams placed first, second and third, respectively. Everyone had a great time designing, building, and driving their ROV.

“I came here for this,” one student commented, “Thank you very much.”

The ROV Challenge was made possible by funding from the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council and the Oil Spill Recovery Institute, and with the assistance of Cordova High School student volunteers.

Photos by Ryan Johnson.

The Petersburg team cheers as their ROV reaches its goal.
The Petersburg team cheers as their ROV reaches its goal.

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Taking the long view – why do we involve youth in our programs?

Community Corner

Lisa Matlock
Lisa Matlock

Outreach Coordinator

Since coming on board last year, I have been regularly asked by community members, board members, and even staff: What does youth engagement have to do with “environmentally safe operation of the Alyeska terminal and associated tankers”? This question arises because the council has invested in youth projects focusing on marine stewardship throughout our region. It’s a good question, one which is vital for the future of oil spill prevention and response in our region.

Like it or not, those who remember the Exxon Valdez oil spill firsthand are aging. For many of us 25 years may seem like yesterday, but for the children of the 21st century that sounds like ancient history. Those who responded to the spill, whose lives were forever changed by the spill, are passionate about the work we do for personal reasons. If those of us with that passion do not invest in passing the importance of oil spill prevention and better oil spill response onto the next generation, then we are likely fated to a future involving the sorts of complacencies that contributed to the Exxon Valdez oil spill in the first place.

We need vigilant future stewards for our region, and the council is helping develop them through our youth projects.

The Youth Involvement project, an initiative of the council’s Information and Education Committee, began three years ago. Through it, we work with partners who deliver marine stewardship education directly to students of all ages and teachers. Our partners take existing ocean-focused curriculum and hands-on activities and pull in oil spill science and oil spill history into those programs. Oil spill prevention and response activities provide a fresh perspective into existing marine education. These programs also help further our goals of increasing public awareness of the spill prevention and response system in Prince William Sound and the potential environmental impacts of the terminal and tanker operations. These activities also help give general marine stewardship education a lesson in reality.

Our newest youth project is a pilot internship program. Through this project, high school and college-level students devote time and effort to specific projects identified as council needs. These students gain valuable career experience along with a deeper understanding of the council mission and its vital work. One of the council’s first interns, Zachary Verfaillie recently completed his project, An Analysis of Fishing Vessel Types and Numbers vs. Response Tactics. Recruitment for 2015 interns will begin in August. If you would like more information about this, please contact me at

Over the fall and winter, the council helped sponsor a variety of youth involvement events on Kodiak Island, and in Homer and Seward (see page 5 for more information on these events). The council’s ongoing work to help the next generation become champions for oil spill prevention in our region will continue in spring and summer, the big season for getting kids outside and in touch with their marine backyard.

Upcoming Youth Involvement Events

Spring – Tunicate monitoring and non-indigenous species education, led by Cordova-based intern, Sarah Hoepfner
May & June – Kachemak Bay Onboard Oceanography led by Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies
29 May-7 June – Prince William Sound Kayaking Expedition led by Chugach School District & Alaska Geographic
June – Valdez Marine Science Camps led by the SPACE program
2-30 June – Kodiak Salmon Camps led by Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges
10-15 June – Prince William Sound Teachers Expedition led by Alaska Geographic & Chugach National Forest
12-20 June – Kachemak Bay Teen EcoAdventure Camp led by Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies
16-23 June – Copper River Stewardship Expedition led by Prince William Sound Science Center & Copper River Watershed Project
21-30 June – Prince William Sound Kayaking Expedition led by Alaska Geographic
Summer – Green crab monitoring led by Cordova-based intern, Sarah Hoepfner

Kodiak and Valdez students build remotely controlled vehicles to respond to mock oil spill

Youth Involvement

Education Assistant, Prince William Sound Science Center

Students create remotely operated vehicle during PWSSC event
Students create remotely operated vehicle during PWSSC event

In March, educators from the Prince William Sound Science Center took their Discovery Outreach programs on the road to Kodiak and Valdez. They worked with high school and middle school students, teaching them about remotely operated vehicles, known as ROVs, and the challenges these vehicles face operating in Arctic ecosystems.

An ROV is a tethered underwater robot that can be operated from a boat or from shore. It is a valuable tool for exploring the ocean where it is either too dangerous or expensive for human divers. These vehicles can be used for a wide variety of tasks, including exploring shipwrecks, discovering deep sea animals and assisting with oil spill cleanups.

Students create remotely operated vehicle during PWSSC event.
Students create remotely operated vehicle during PWSSC event.

The students learned about the difficulties of operating in the Arctic environment, where hazards include incredibly harsh winters, extended periods of darkness and often unpredictable icepacks. Students then designed and built their own vehicle to respond to a mock oil spill. After splitting into “companies,” each group was given a bag of parts and a controller with three motors. The groups were free to build their own design with only a few restrictions.

Students create remotely operated vehicle during PWSSC event.
Students create remotely operated vehicle during PWSSC event.

After building their vehicles, the students migrated to the pool, where the groups tested the buoyancy and balance of their machines. After some adjustments, students were ready to tackle the mock oil spill. The vehicles completed mock tasks such as transporting floating equipment by bringing a beach ball back to the side of the pool, delivering a piece of equipment to an underwater work station by driving through a submerged hula hoop, and taking a sample from a pool of oil in the ice by surfacing the vehicle inside a floating hula hoop. Students got competitive as they raced against the clock, trying to complete as many challenges as possible within the time limit. Groups also received points for good teamwork.

Students create remotely operated vehicle during PWSSC event.
Students create remotely operated vehicle during PWSSC event.

One of the most remarkable things was the wide variety of solutions the students came up with. No two vehicles were the same. All of the groups developed different strategies to accomplish the challenges as they were forced to think about new design and engineering problems. The students learned about new forms of technology and how they are being used, while having fun building and testing their own machine.

Students learned cooperation, innovation, communication and other skills which are essential for success in the 21st century. The Prince William Sound Science Center’s Discovery Outreach programs bring these hands-on experiences to communities around Alaska. Students involved with these programs develop into the future’s workforce and problem solvers, able to respond to the challenges of threatened natural resources.

Students create remotely operated vehicle during PWSSC event.
Students create remotely operated vehicle during PWSSC event.

This outreach program was co-sponsored by the Oil Spill Recovery Institute and the council.


Ocean science festival held in Cordova, coming to Valdez

Education Director, Prince William Sound Science Center

This past September, on a rainy, windblown Saturday, 215 diehard science enthusiasts braved the elements to attend the Prince William Sound Science Center’s Ocean Science Festival in Cordova. The festival was an opportunity to get a behind the scenes look at ocean research being conducted in Prince William Sound.

Dr. Richard Lee of the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography in Savannah, Georgia gave the keynote presentation about oil spill dispersants. Katrina Hoffman, chief executive officer and president of the science center, shared information about Gulf Watch Alaska, the long-term monitoring program funded by the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council to study the effects of the Exxon Valdez oil spill on the Gulf of Alaska’s ecosystem.

Researchers invited children and adults to explore and investigate their tools of the trade through hands on demonstrations, activities and informative displays.

The Oil Spill Recovery Institute showed off tools for finding oil such as an autonomous underwater vehicle and an oil spill surveillance balloon.

Science center fisheries biologists set up a demonstration to show how scientists use sonar to measure and track fish populations such as herring in Prince William Sound. Oceanographers from the science center were on hand with live plankton and nets used to collect the plankton.

Science center educators demonstrated a mini Remotely Operated Vehicle and gave visitors a chance to drive the vehicle through a set of underwater challenges.

Visitors competed against each other in the H2Olympics and Plankton Races. These activities helped demonstrate water properties such as adhesion, cohesion and density, giving students a better understanding of the challenges that must be overcome when designing ocean science equipment.

Visitors learned about basic water quality monitoring and the science center’s Headwaters to Oceans Monitoring Network program which collects water quality and weather data from all over Prince William Sound.

Staff from the council was on hand to talk about the ShoreZone Coastal Inventory and Mapping Project which documents the biology and geology of Alaska’s coast. ShoreZone coastal mapping data is used for oil spill contingency planning, conservation planning, habitat research, site development evaluation and recreational opportunities.

The Alaska Ocean Observing System demonstrated their system of web-cameras and weather data which streams to the internet from over 3,000 stations throughout Alaska. The system provides up-to-date data such as temperature, wind speed and direction to the public.

The Coast Guard was on-hand to demonstrate navigational aids. The Herring Research and Monitoring Program had information about their research to improve predictions of herring populations.

There were also informational booths from Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Alaska Pacific University, Alaska Sea Grant, Cordova Clean Harbors, University of Alaska Fairbanks School of Fisheries and Ocean Science, and the US Forest Service.

The science center will be bringing the festival to the Valdez Convention Center on Friday March 8, 2013 from 6pm-8pm.

For more information, please visit the science center on Facebook:
Funding for the festival is provided in part by the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council, Alaska Ocean Observing System, Prince William Sound Science Center and Oil Spill Recovery Institute.

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