Making Connections: Comparing Undersea and Aerospace Remote Sensing to Learn About Earth Science

NOAA's Okeanos Explorer
NOAA’s Okeanos Explorer

The week before spring break at the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering, I decided to focus our lessons on a topic outside of our academy theme of aerospace – instead, we focused on the ocean. We are in the middle of our third major unit of grade-level science, earth science, and the current topic is plate tectonics, earthquakes, and volcanoes. I had tied this topic to our aerospace theme by teaching the students about remote sensing from the air and from space, and we learned how various aircraft and satellites can be used to observe plate tectonics and provide warning of earthquakes and volcanoes. We also learned about NASA missions to Mars that have observed plate tectonics and that plan to put a seismograph on the planet to detect earthquakes.

At the beginning of this unit, we had learned that much of plate tectonic theory had been developed after observations of the sea floor had shown major rifts and mountain chains. As I researched the topic, I realized the students would benefit from a short study of undersea plate tectonics and its effects. I found a treasure trove of material on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA’s) Ocean Explorer website. The way I connected this to what we had studied already was first to focus on undersea remote sensing using SONAR (sound navigation and ranging) and remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), then to compare how they were used to the way the electromagnetic (EM) spectrum, drones, and satellites were used for aerospace remote sensing. Then I had the students pick undersea earth science topics that interested them, research the topics, then present their findings to the class. After we finished the unit, I asked the students to reflect on it and say how they liked studying the ocean and if it was helpful. Here are a few responses that are representative of the whole class and show they found it very helpful:

“I think that this past week learning about the ocean and remote sensing was good and reinforced my understanding of remote sensing. This helped me because everything tied together. The SONAR information was about remote sensing and that helped with the tectonic activity under the ocean. To conclude I thought that learning about the ocean was extremely helpful.”

“Overall, this week on learning about the ocean was really helpful and interesting to me. It helped me understand how the aerospace world and the ocean world relate when traveling and using remote sensing. It also made it clear to me how many of today’s technologies in different substances follow some of the same principles. To conclude I really enjoyed learning about the ocean this week because it helped me understand more about waves and different technologies.”

“I think that ocean week was a very good idea. It let me see that sound is useful for making discoveries, not just light. It also showed me that even though most people are interested in space and that sort of stuff, we really don’t know a lot about Earth. Overall this was a good project/week to do and it was good to take a break from space for a while since we have been taking about space for a couple of weeks now.”

“This helped me further understand how the Earth works with plate tectonics; it was also very interesting. What I want to do with this information is apply it to other planets or moons with tectonic activity like Mars or Europa. I also found that knowing how SONAR works could also be helpful in comparing other environments on other planets or moons.”

“This week on the ocean was a very helpful week for me. It helped me understand way more about the ocean. I was also able to make many connections along the way to the aerospace world. At first when you said we were going to be doing an ocean study, I didn’t think it would be useful, but after awhile when we were covering it, I realized how helpful it was to me.”

“I liked this week on marine science. We learned about how scientists use ROVs [remotely operated vehicles] to study areas thought to be an area of anomaly. These areas consisted of hydrothermal vents which and hotspots. These special occurrences happen all over the world, and we use different ROVs to locate and find out what they are doing. The Okeanos Explorer has two special ROVs to send out for different things. They have special instruments on them to find out if that area is an anomaly like a thermometer to see how hot an area is and a barometer to study depth and pressure. SONAR is used to show images of areas underwater with depth and location of the area. I learned a lot about ROVs and how they work and how they are used during this week. Thank you for the week on marine science.”

“Learning about the ocean was very useful because we have focused on exploration in the air and in space, but now we compared and contrasted ocean exploration with what we already knew. For example in the ocean you use sonar instead of radar to map out your location. I though it was all very interesting.”

“Studying the ocean helped us understand what we can do without involving the EM Spectrum. We are no longer confined to just using the EM spectrum because we learned that when it isn’t possible to be used, like in the ocean, we can used SONAR which uses sound. Studying how SONAR is used showed me how little the ocean is explored, much less the whole Earth, and it would be a good career field to look into. It also shows that when something doesn’t work, there is always something else just waiting to be discovered or used, and just because air, space, and the ocean are so different, it doesn’t mean you have to look in a completely different direction. Both use the basic concept of waves, which proves that what you learn in one area can be used in another area. I believe that we should get out there, as a nation and a world, and look at what the ocean and other unexplored things have in store for us.”

Author: Bryan Holmes, Physics & Math Teacher, STEM Competition Mentor

Starting at Thomaston High School in Thomaston, Connecticut, in fall of 2018.

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