Science

To Program’s Founder, The Entire Universe Is a Classroom

By Andrew Trotter — March 22, 2000 2 min read

For a man of singular accomplishments, the undersea explorer and scientist Robert D. Ballard has a remarkably inclusive personality.

Undersea explorer Robert D. Ballard started the Jason Project after finding the RMS Titanic.
—The Jason Foundation for Education

He is recognized as the greatest deep-sea explorer of the present age, whose ocean discoveries include the RMS Titanic, the German battleship Bismarck, and ancient Roman shipwrecks. His other pioneering work includes the charting of undersea rifts and more than 100 deep-sea expeditions, many using deep-diving submersibles.

But you can’t chat with Mr. Ballard for long about his work without feeling that he’s trying to sign you up for his next expedition. That come-along charisma is essential to his leadership of the Jason Project, which takes students and teachers to remote and interesting corners of the world to do real science with real scientists.

Mr. Ballard founded the project in 1989, after he received thousands of letters from schoolchildren following his 1986 exploration of the Titanic in a tiny three-man, robot-equipped submarine.

In 1990, he started the Jason Foundation for Education, based in Mystic, Conn., to administer the program, advance a mission of engaging students in science and technology, and help teachers improve their skills in conveying the nature of scientific enterprise.

He is also the master of ceremonies for the broadcasts of Jason’s annual expeditions to hundreds of thousands of students across the United States and in several other countries.

That role is as much showmanship as science, Mr. Ballard admits.

“I think you have to be competitive with the other demands that are placed on young children,” he said in a recent interview here. “You’ve got to really go after the kid. You can’t expect them to come to you.”

‘Argonauts’

Showing the “argonauts,” as the student and teacher participants are called, diving around a coral reef or doing experiments with NASA equipment conveys some of the fun of science, Mr. Ballard said, but also gives them reasons for doing the necessary work.

“You want to sell the kids on the ‘game,’ ” he said. “They’ll realize to play basketball, I’ve got to practice. To be a football player, I’ve got to do pushups. To be a scientist, I’ve got to do mental pushups.”

Some Jason segments point out the practical realities of the work involved: “Some of it is wearing a diaper if you’re an astronaut,” he said.

Another goal is to make teachers more like scientists. “We’re trying to put them out on the edge of the unknown, where scientists generally are—not where teachers are, teaching what’s known,” Mr. Ballard said.

There is a tension between those roles that some teachers find uncomfortable, he acknowledges.

The Jason Project shows teachers that “it’s OK to say, ‘I don’t know.’ That’s hard for a teacher to say historically, because they’re supposed to be in a position of authority,” Mr. Ballard remarked.

“But if you make the shift from the classroom to the cutting edge of research and exploration—that’s where ‘I don’t know’ is why you’re there.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 22, 2000 edition of Education Week as To Program’s Founder, The Entire Universe Is a Classroom

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