The guest speaker at Rachel Carson Middle School in Herndon told the audience that he sympathized with Northern Virginia's traffic congestion but that it could be worse: His daily commute of only a mile often takes five hours, round trip.
The trip is to the ocean surface and the commuter is Robert D. Ballard, the oceanographer perhaps best known for his discovery of the wreckage of the RMS Titanic in the North Atlantic nearly 20 years ago.
Ballard was at Carson on Oct. 26 to recognize the school for its involvement in a science program he created in 1989. The scientist spoke to about 1,000 students, parents, teachers and community and business leaders about his career and the past, present and future of the ocean sciences.
Ballard showed slides of some of his deep-sea discoveries -- the "black smoker" mineral vents and the tube worms that live near them, and wrecks of ancient and modern ships, the most famous of which is the ocean liner Titanic, which sank on its maiden voyage in 1912.
The Carson audience was treated to a preview of the newest Titanic pictures, which will be published in the December issue of National Geographic magazine. The pictures show the damage inflicted on the ship by souvenir hunters and careless sightseers' submarines. He also showed rarely seen photographs of the shoes marking the final resting place of people who went down with the ship.
He thanked the Carson students, teachers and administrators for supporting the JASON Project, a "distance learning" program designed to give students the opportunity to experience real-world science in a classroom environment.
Named for the legendary Greek explorer, the JASON Project was founded by Ballard in 1989 after he received thousands of letters from schoolchildren asking how he had discovered the Titanic. The 1.7 million students and 38,000 teachers in the program use the Internet and satellite links to work remotely with scientists and other experts directly from their classrooms, in a different environment each year.
Carson has been named a JASON Center for Excellence by the JASON Foundation for Education, a nonprofit organization that runs the project. Such centers are models for other schools wanting to learn how to start a JASON program.
The school counts among its alumni two students who have served as "argonauts" in a small group picked each year to work for two weeks with Ballard and other scientists at a designated JASON site.
This year it was wetlands in Louisiana. Previous programs have included expeditions to Hawaiian Island volcanoes and the Galapagos Islands. Next year's project is expected to use the Mojave Desert in California as a stand-in for a study of Mars.
Carson Principal August Frattali said students find the JASON program exciting.
"It really expands [science] beyond the classroom," Frattali said. "It gets students involved in real-life science with prominent scientists around the world. Through this distance learning, it's giving us an opportunity to really go places where 10 or 20 years ago you couldn't even think of going in an educational program. It's a benefit to the children."
Rachel Carson's JASON Project was started more than 10 years ago by Kirk Treakle, an eighth-grade teacher of physical sciences. Since then, Frattali said, Treakle has "made it more an interdisciplinary program where you have art teachers, English teachers -- a whole cadre of folks getting trained through the JASON Foundation."
Treakle said: "I just happened to be the first one to get involved, and then we had the opportunity to become a center for excellence. That's really allowed us to train a lot more teachers. They invited us to become a center for excellence so that we could become a model for the area and other schools that were thinking about starting to use JASON."
Carolyn Scoggins, a Rachel Carson eighth-grader, has participated in the JASON Project each of her two years at the school. She said she prefers the JASON model of learning to traditional lectures and textbook readings.
"We have a lot of different curriculums that we do, and we learn a lot off the Web sites, and we do interactive labs. It's definitely different," Carolyn said.
Eyeing the scene at Carson on Oct. 26, one might have guessed that a famous entertainer or athlete was visiting, instead of an oceanographer. Ballard was surrounded by students eager for autographs or asking questions.
During his 45-minute presentation, he spoke of a childhood dream -- "I wanted to be Captain Nemo," he said -- that led him to a 33-year career as a naval officer, much of it aboard deep-sea submarines.
Ballard said his most important recent accomplishment was the work he did, along with 15 other scientists, on the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy. In an interview, he said, "We spent three years touring the United States, taking 500 expert testimonies on what America's policy should be. A few weeks ago, we went to the White House and presented the results of our three-year study. It's only the second time in the history of the country that we've had an ocean commission."
Ballard said he was gratified that the Bush administration and Congress acted quickly to implement the commission's recommendations to begin serious exploration of the deep oceans.
"They created the first ship of exploration our country has ever had," he said. The former Navy ship, which has been transferred to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is called the USMS Capable. "We have a contest for kids to rename it," Ballard said.
The Capable, which is docked in Seattle, is being retrofitted with the remotely operated exploration equipment and other technology it will need for its new mission. Ballard said data from the ship will be sent to an inner space center at the University of Rhode Island's Graduate School of Oceanography, where Ballard is on the faculty. "So the ship will be connected at all times. Like Houston is to outer space, this will be to inner space."
According to Ballard, some of the transmissions will be available as "educational programming for the JASON Project, The Boys and Girls Clubs of America, and museums and science centers including the Smithsonian's new Ocean Hall," scheduled to open in 2008. "We will be taking to children constantly, not just periodically like we do with JASON. When we make a discovery, it will go right to the kids."
Ballard says those discoveries may include new mountain ranges, "new life forms, mineral deposits, oil deposits. We see great potential new creatures that will help us understand the origins of life on our planet."
Ballard, who said that less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the deep seas have been explored, also heads the Mystic Aquarium's Institute for Exploration in Connecticut, which has begun an earnest search for the ancient shipwrecks that litter the ocean bottoms. Ballard calls the field archaeological oceanography. "There is more history in our oceans than in all the museums of the world combined, and [mine is] the only institute committed to finding it," he said.
He calculated that there could be remnants of about a million ancient wooden ships on the floors of the world's oceans. In most places, those ships have decayed over time, victims of a species of clam that has evolved to eat wood. Only the ships' non-wooden cargo remains as evidence of the wrecks. But in the Black Sea, which below a depth of 600 feet has no breathable oxygen for marine life, the ancient wrecks, their contents and the crews' bodies are almost perfectly preserved.
In addition to the work he does with JASON, Ballard said, "We have a hundred days at sea next year -- 70 days on the ship of exploration, 30 days in the Mediterranean searching for ancient antiquities." Smiling, Ballard said, "So I'll be busy."