VIMS partners with Ed School on vessel mystery

  • STEM Outreach  Lauren Ferris, VIMS engineer, discusses the Slocum glider with students at Robert E. Lee Elementary School in Spotsylvania, Virginia.  © Kaitlyn Boyle.
  • Student Presentations  Students present their theories on the disappearance of the U.S.S. Cyclops to a team of marine specialists.  © Kaitlyn Boyle.
  • Where's the Evidence?  A student shows evidence to support her theory about the missing vessel U.S.S. Cyclops.  © Kaitlyn Boyle.
  • Student Poster  A student-created poster explains the theory and evidence to support the suspected disappearance of the U.S.S. Cyclops.  © Kaitlyn Boyle.
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Researchers at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science recently partnered with William & Mary’s School of Education and students at Robert E. Lee Elementary in Spotsylvania to explore a nautical mystery.

The collaboration with fifth-grade teacher Kaitlyn Boyle was designed to challenge her 75 students with a real-world problem centered on the mystery of the USS Cyclops. The U.S. Naval vessel sunk without a trace in the Bermuda Triangle in 1918, along with her 306 crew and passengers. The ultimate cause of the ship's disappearance remains unknown.

Collaborating with the teacher and students were staff from the STEM Education Alliance at W&M’s School of Education as well as VIMS professor Donglai Gong and marine science engineer Lauren Ferris. Gong directs the Coastal & Polar Physical Oceanography Laboratory at VIMS, affectionately known as C2PO in homage to Gong’s background in intergalactic studies.

Titled “The Search for the USS Cyclops,” the 9-week activity asked students to research and form theories based on three essential questions: (1) How did the USS Cyclops sink?, (2) Where is the Cyclops now?, and (3) Why has the vessel been so hard to locate? At the end of the project, groups of two to three students presented their theories and supporting evidence to a panel of scientific experts from the STEM Education Alliance and VIMS.

Ferris reports their consensus opinion was that the ship had capsized due to the interaction of ocean currents with an undersea ridge during high tide.

Greg Marsh, project specialist with the STEM Education Alliance, says “The students enjoyed taking control of their own learning and discussing their findings with professionals currently working on similar projects.”

The students conducted a variety of experiments to test their questions and obtain supporting evidence. These included developing a test that used food coloring to distinguish warm from cold water; illustrating surface currents with straws and glitter; building a clay model to illustrate depth zones in the ocean, including the Abyssal Plain; investigating fresh, brackish, and salt water in a density column; and using wavelength goggles to locate the visible light spectrum through water.

The experiments targeted several Virginia Standards of Learning (SOL) topics such as neap tides, tectonic plate movements, vertebrate and invertebrate predators, density of water, and ocean currents.

Asst. Professor Donglai Gong with his glider in the lab. Ferris, who volunteered to travel to Spotsylvania for the student presentations on February 10th, brought along a Slocum G2 underwater glider and Nitrox scuba tanks to explain buoyancy and ocean-exploration techniques. She led an hour-long Q&A session related to her work with the underwater glider and her career as a female engineer. Students had a chance to ask questions about her current career and the path that led her to becoming an engineer at VIMS.

Greg Marsh, project specialist at the STEM Education Alliance, helped connect the VIMS activities in ocean exploration and marine technology to the SOL objectives that were covered throughout the project.