Local student talks to class on live feed from Nautilus

Local student talks to class on live feed from Nautilus

SMITHFIELD - When his 8th-grade science teacher, Tamara McCurdy, about a year ago suggested to Austin Sanderson that he apply to become a Student Argonaut with JASON Learning, the national educational group founded by famed Titanic discoverer Bob Ballard, he replied:

"You don't know my mom."

"I admit I am a little overprotective," said Austin's mom, Doreen Sanderson, "but I've always tried to teach my children to go for their dreams. People who know me would be surprised at how calm I am. I'm just thrilled for him. I'm overflowing with pride."

Doreen had every reason to be proud, and protective, because as she spoke her 14-year-old son was in the Caribbean Sea aboard the exploration vessel Nautilus, flagship for the JASON Learning program, sailing with Ballard and a team of other scientists to explore the ocean depths in the general area of Puerto Rico and Antigua. Austin's trip lasted five days, from Oct. 17-21.

A freshman at Smithfield High and a straight-A student, he was one of four Student Argonauts on board - the only Rhode Islander, with the others from Houston, Texas. Two teachers, "Educator Argonauts" from Texas and Idaho, were also aboard. Austin estimated that about 40 people, including the crew and the Argonauts, were on the ship.

But what was most exciting for local residents was what happened in the late morning of Saturday, Oct. 19.

About 50 people gathered in the cafeteria at Vincent J. Gallagher Middle School, where two large flat-screen televisions were set up on a stage to broadcast a live feed from the Nautilus.

There was Austin on the TV screen, wearing a JASON T-shirt and appearing far more poised than his teen years would suggest, ready to talk to the hometown folks. He wore a headset and was seated on the ship with the ocean's wake rippling behind him, the soft hum of an engine barely audible. A cell phone was used to send live questions to Austin.

Local students asked: Have you seen any seismic activity? "We haven't seen any of that," Austin replied. Any underwater animals? "I've only been on the ship a couple of hours, but you never know, we might see them soon."

Have you found any ship wrecks? "We haven't found any ship wrecks yet. We might be able to look at something in the water later, but I'm not sure."

How far down does the ship go? "Very close to the bottom of the ocean. I'm not sure how deep." Is this the same ship that found the Titanic? "No, it's not the same ship as the Titanic discovery."

Peter McLaren, president of the Council of State Science Supervisors, was on hand from the state Department of Education to represent Commissioner Deborah Gist, who had another engagement. McLaren said Gist was "devastated" to miss this event because she is "so supportive of the Smithfield initiative" in JASON Learning and STEM studies (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

McLaren was one of several questioners who asked Austin what inspired him to become a Student Argonaut and what advice would he give to other youths interested in following the same path. 'It's probably my love of science (that inspired him)," Austin said. "(Being an Argonaut) is a good way to discover a lot about science."

He suggested that other youths interested in joining Ballard's team definitely should give it a try. "Don't let anything hold you back. Just go and experience all that you can," Austin advised. "I really just think you should go for everything. I didn't think I'd become an Argonaut."

Except for a brief bout of seasickness, Austin had no problems to report. He told his mom that, even though he is what she called "a picky eater," he was able to eat some food. His journey saw him stop first in San Juan, Puerto Rico, before boarding the Nautilus for the Caribbean. Upcoming itinerary included a stop in Antigua, a hike through a rain forest, and a Nautilus search along the ocean floor for signs of volcanic activity. "It's great that Smithfield supports me," Austin said at the end of the broadcast. "I thank them for that." The Gallagher audience applauded in return.

Smithfield supports JASON, but JASON supports Smithfield schools, too. Supt. Robert O'Brien, who coordinated Saturday's event with the assistance of newly-hired Technology Director Paul Barrette, said Smithfield is the "only public school district in the world" to have the hookup used to broadcast live from the Nautilus. "Some of the equipment comes compliments of Bob Ballard, who's been very good to Smithfield," O'Brien said.

Another benefit of the Ballard connection is use of the JASON Learning curriculum, a specially designed interactive course of study that covers the required core material for middle school students. The curriculum can be used in place of traditional approaches or as a supplement, and versions of it are offered as after-school programs by some nonprofits such as YMCAs and Boys and Girls Clubs, according to the JASON website (www.jason.org).

The curriculum covers energy, ecology, geology, weather, forces and motion, and climate, and encompasses such formats as the Internet, digital labs and games, videos and animation, live events and contests.

Lisa Carter, a science teacher who was one of the first Educator Argonauts aboard the Nautilus in 2010, said her Gallagher colleagues use the JASON study materials. "All the (science) teachers are using (the curriculum) in their classrooms," Carter told the gathering. "They have really taken hold of it." O'Brien said Smithfield was one of the first school districts in the state to incorporate JASON lessons into the curriculum.

After the live broadcast was over, Doreen Sanderson and her husband, Bryan Sanderson, chatted with friends and relatives who had come to the school to see Austin live from the Nautilus. Doreen is a substitute teacher in Smithfield schools and Bryan is employed in sales.

Doreen said she was relieved that everything went smoothly and, in spite of her early qualms, she is thrilled that Austin became a Student Argonaut.

"He has so many opportunities on his path now that this experience will open the door to," she said. She and her husband said computers and technology always have been Austin's "passion" and, as for college, he has his sights now set on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, one of the world's premier science schools.

Watching the broadcast with several friends was Gallagher student Alex Iannuzzi, an 8th-grader. Asked what he learned from it, Alex said he realized "all the stuff you can do if you put your mind to it." He would like to be a chemical engineer someday.

Austin Sanderson, a 9th-grader from Smithfield, is aboard the exploration vessel Nautilus sailing in the Caribbean on a research voyage. Saturday morning, at Gallagher Middle School, Austin was able to speak to his parents and answer questions from his fellow students via a satellite link to the ship. Doreen and Bryan Sanderson stand in the foreground while their son, Austin, broadcasts live on the monitor in the background. (Valley Breeze & Observer photo by David Wuerth)