Kids, coding and marine science came together in Hawaii last week for a special earning event hosted by the Benioff Ocean Initiative, McCauley Lab at UC Santa Barbara and U Can Too (which focuses on technology and education). Twenty students from Honolulu’s Kamehameha School STEM Academy created custom seawater temperature sensors during a two-day marine science and technology workshop.
Their sensors will be deployed by scientists at Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, a remote but ecologically and culturally important portion of the Hawaiian archipelago.
The workshop drew on the students’ creativity and problem-solving skills, as they learned how to design, code, and build custom sensors from scratch. The Benioff Ocean Initiative was founded by Salesforce Chairman and CEO Marc Benioff and his wife Lynne, with a focus on finding solutions that will lead to cleaner and healthier oceans. The Benioffs have partnered with NOAA to support an upcoming research expedition to explore Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument to benefit future conservation efforts.
There were distinct “aha moments” as the students connected their temperature sensors to Linux-based Raspberry Pi devices and wrote Python code to display the current temperature on displays. They tested their devices by holding the temperature sensors in their hands seeing if the temperature readings changed in real-time on their screens.
Totem, a custom DIY construction system for makers of all levels, donated a set of building materials for the workshop. The students worked with the Totem parts to design, cut, and build a custom mounting system to hold a Raspberry Pi and battery inside of the waterproof enclosure.
The students were challenged to think through the problems their sensors might encounter while deployed at sea and they developed solutions to keep their housings from leaking.
The workshop was led by Morgan Visalli, Marine Scientist at the Benioff Ocean Initiative; Su Adams from U Can Too; Raymond Centeno, Senior Software Engineer at Salesforce; and Nadine Jacang, STEM Academy Coordinator at Kamehameha Schools.
Students also heard from several speakers during the workshop. Visalli provided marine science information, helping students understand how climate change affects the ocean and coral reef ecosystems. The students learned how measuring water temperature can help predict the impact of global warming on areas such as Papahanaumokuakea, the site of a Marine National Monument.
“As I went around the classroom to help students one-on-one, it was terrific to watch their coding and engineering skills improve, even over two short days,” said Visalli. “I was quite impressed by their initiative and creativity as we worked together to problem-solve when they hit a roadblock in their code or construction. By the end of the workshop, students were already identifying themselves as coders and/or engineers.”
Dr. Richard Pyle, a zoologist from the Bishop Museum and scientist on the upcoming research expedition to Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, told the students about his experiences studying the deep waters of the Hawaiian Islands using high-tech dive gear. He showed images of newly identified fish from Papahanaumokuakea, and explained how over 50 percent of fish species found in the Monument waters are endemic to that area.
Hawaiian cultural expert Sol Kaho’ohalahala shared the Kumulipo, an 18th-century creation story told in the Hawaiian language, and the longest recorded traditional Hawaiian chant. He also related the history of how many life forms originally evolved from Papahanaumokuakea, beginning with the coral polyp, and encouraged the students to learn about and honor their ancestral connection with this sacred place and the living things found there.
Alana Eagle and Nathan Eagle, journalists for the Honolulu Civil Beat, shared a collection of photos and videos from their two-week voyage to Papahanaumokuakea. The students learned about the planning and preparation that goes into visiting a place with such restricted access—including deep freezing all of their clothes before visiting the quarantined islands. The students also got to see a bag full of plastic pieces that were found in the stomach of one albatross on Midway Island, highlighting the plastic pollution crisis that the islands are facing.
"Our kids are going to be stuck living in the climate-altered world we’ve created,” said Douglas McCauley, Director of the Benioff Ocean Initiative and Professor of Biology at UC Santa Barbara. “We owe it to them to do all we can to better that future. One of those obligations is giving them the very best tools and training to fight back against these problems."