Q&A: Renowned Explorer Aims To Interest Youths in Applied Science

September 25, 1991 3 min read

Robert D. Ballard, the director of the Center for Marine Exploration at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, became world famous when he discovered the wreck of the R.M.S. Titanic.

He also is the founder of the Jason Foundation for Education, which mounts scientific expeditions around the globe to interest precollegiate students in applied science.

The expeditions employ a satellite-delivery system to allow hundreds of thousands of students nationwide to watch on television as the Jason team investigates shipwrecks and other underwater phenomena.

As part of the project, researchers at the College of Education at Lehigh University, one of the “downlink sites,” recently surveyed students and found that it had a strong positive influence on their attitudes toward science.

Mr. Ballard announced last week that the third Jason expedition, scheduled for early December, will explore the unique flora and fauna of the Galapagos Islands, off the coast of Ecuador.

He discussed the Jason project and science education with Staff Writer Peter West.

Q. Could you briefly describe the genesis of the Jason Foundation?

A. We know that young people remember 80 percent of what they do. Clearly, we believe that hands-on involvement in science and technology should be a very powerful motivator.

Also, it came out of my experience from having found the Titanic, which was really an engineering exercise [to develop] new exploration technologies.

But what also came out of that were 16,000 letters from young people [who] wrote in to [ask] me about how I became what I am. And the answer was [that] I took a lot of physics. But somehow, they were not making the connection between my education in the physical sciences and my success as a scientific explorer.

And so we saw in the Titanic expedition an opportunity to turn their interests in that ship into a generic interest in science and technology by inviting them along on voyages of discovery.

Q. What sort of acceptance has the Jason project had among students and educators?

A. I thought initially there might be some hesitation on the part of teachers, a feeling that perhaps we were not experienced educators. But I found the exact opposite.

I found a willingness on the part of the teachers in the trenches of education to take risks and to experiment with methods of motivation. They really are ... seeking all the help they can get.

We now have 10,000 teachers in the Jason program, and this year, we should reach close to 600,000 students.

And all of those students know the price for participating is to study a difficult curriculum [devised by the National Science Teachers Association], and yet they’re more than willing to participate.

Q. Studying ancient shipwrecks is exciting, but do you feel that students make the connection between your expeditions and the very hard work of day-to-day science?

A. Being scientists, we’re curious about cause and effect. It’s a great deal of trouble... it’s very disruptive to our normal careers, to put this much effort into precollege education. So we don’t want to do this unless it works.

So we asked Lehigh ... to study the students to see the impact we were having, or not having. And the results were amazing.

They saw a tremendous shift in attitudes about science. When the students were preparing for the expedition, before they even heard about the Jason project, they asked them about their attitudes about science. Then, after they studied the curriculum, they asked them again. Then, after they experienced the Jason project, they asked them again.

And they saw a tremendous shift in attitude, a very positive shift. Second, they found that that impact of the project was felt equally by boys and girls.

Plus, the impact was felt greatest in grades 6 and 10, which is exactly where young people are starting to make career decisions. So it not only looks like a great deal of fun, which it is, it works.

Q. For the most part, scientists are criticized as aloof from science education. Is that your experience?

A. Scientists are used to {teaching]just a few students at one time. To have an opportunity to impact on such a large scale, I have found my scientific colleagues eager to help.

Q. How vital is the use of technology to your undertakings, and do you believe criticisms of television by educators are valid?

A. You can’t have the reach, you can’t bring the excitement of discovery into the classroom, in any other way.

We know that information is doubling every six years. By the time [information] gets distilled and put into a textbook, it’s, to [a great] degree, ancient history.

I think [that] for a long, long time, scientists and educators cursed the television. I think now many of them are realizing how powerful it is and have made a commitment to master it.

A version of this article appeared in the September 25, 1991 edition of Education Week as Q&A: Renowned Explorer Aims To Interest Youths in Applied Science