Introducing Underrepresented Students to Cutting-Edge Marine Science

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to operate a vehicle nearly 1,000 feet below the ocean’s surface? Six students from Rainier Beach High School in Seattle, Washington were invited to participate in this once-in-a-lifetime experience.

The high schoolers learned how to drive a remotely operated vehicle (ROV), nicknamed “Yelloweye,” along the bottom of Puget Sound and discovered swaths of the ocean floor previously unseen by human eyes. Under the tutelage of Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and NOAA Fisheries scientists, students spent the day learning about ROV research in a pilot program designed to introduce underrepresented students to marine science and rare rockfish species of Puget Sound.

The first group of students sets sail aboard the Molluscan. Photo: Alicia Keefe, NOAA Fisheries


"Our responsibility to education is far greater than our responsibility to publish a research paper."

-Dr. Muller-Parker, Program Director, National Science Foundation


Even in an era driven by science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education, our country’s science education efforts have not reached all students. This is best illustrated by the lack of diversity in our science workforce. Throughout the United States, women, people with disabilities, and three minority groups—blacks, Hispanics, and American Indians—are considered underrepresented in science. These groups are considered underrepresented because they constitute disproportionately smaller percentages of science degree recipients and of employed scientists than they do of the U.S. population.  For example, while white men only make up 31.6% of the adult population in the United States, they represent 51% of the science and engineering workforce.1 These graphs show the demographics and career breakdown. 

NOAA Fisheries and our partners at the King County chapter of the NAACP and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife are working to broaden participation in the sciences. This spring, we kicked off a pilot program designed to expose students to scientists and different career pathways, including oceanography, marine biology, and science journalism. Six students from Rainier Beach High School were selected to participate in two experiences: a classroom visit by experts and a research-based field trip.

Carolyn steers the Molluscan. Photo courtesy of Carol Riley-Payne

During the classroom visit, Carolyn Riley-Payne, chair of the NAACP's Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics, spoke with students about the impact of underrepresentation in science and opportunities for improving this deficit. As a retired 30-year Supervisory Human Resource Manager at NOAA Fisheries, Carolyn understands the challenges facing women and minorities pursuing careers in science.

“We have worked for decades to get more minority students into the STEM pipeline, but this has not changed the fact that women and minorities remain underrepresented,” notes Riley-Payne. “In order to recruit and retain minority students, we must create a comprehensive pipeline beginning in high school. Students must be exposed to different science careers, have access to mentors, and know there are positions awaiting them.” 

Students then welcomed another local expert: Dan Tonnes, NOAA Fisheries Recovery Coordinator, who spoke about the plight of threatened and endangered rockfish. Tonnes regaled students with tales of marine debris, including toilets found on the bottom of Puget Sound; the long lives of rockfish, which may live up to 200 years; and the rise of ratfish, whose numbers exploded as rockfish populations declined. 

Yelloweye the remotely operated vehicle (ROV). Credit: Alicia Keefe, NOAA Fisheries

On the morning of their field trip, students made an early trek from southeastern Seattle to Shilshole Marina. Once they arrived, they made their way to the Molluscan, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s research vessel. They were greeted by the ROV and three researchers: James Beam, Andrea Hennings, and Robert Pacunski. While Beam steers the vessel, Pacunski pilots the ROV, and Hennings surveys groundfish along the bottom of Puget Sound. Together, the team helps create species distribution and abundance estimates for rockfish and other groundfish in Puget Sound. This data helps NOAA Fisheries and others learn about the status and recovery of these fish.

Freddy Roberson and Andrea Hennings deploy Yelloweye, the ROV. Photo: Alicia Keefe, NOAA Fisheries

After an introduction and safety briefing, three students and their oceanography teacher, Louise Wong, boarded the Molluscan. After cruising past California sea lions and goldeneye ducks, they came to a stop near ideal rockfish habitat. Pacunski explained the history and importance of the ROV.

“We use Yelloweye to observe and study fish, invertebrates—like sea stars, octopi, and shrimp—and habitats that are nearly 1,000 feet below the surface,” explained Pacunski. “The ROV is attached to the boat with a yellow electrical cable called ‘the umbilical.’ The umbilical allows us to communicate with the ROV and to see its camera feed.”

Jamyn Patu piloting Yelloweye on the ocean floor. Photo: Alicia Keefe, NOAA Fisheries

After Yelloweye descended to the ocean floor, Pacunski demonstrated the ROV’s camera feed and controls, before turning them over to the students. While piloting the ROV around the muddy seafloor, students discovered rockfish, ratfish, lingcod, anemones, shrimp, crabs, sea stars, sculpin, a wolfeel, and an octopus.

Students measure the turbidity of Puget Sound. Photo: Alicia Keefe, NOAA Fisheries

While the first group of students was out to sea, the second group explored the intertidal zone of Golden Gardens Park. Casey Ralston, Education Coordinator for the NOAA Fisheries Northwest Fisheries Science Center, led turbidity and macroinvertebrate demonstrations. After putting their water samples under lenses, students discovered a jellyfish, crab zoea, fish eggs, and other macroinvertebrates. Afterwards, Greg Williams, Research Fishery Biologist from the NOAA Fisheries Northwest Fisheries Science Center, led students on a beach walk and talked about the impact of urbanization on Puget Sound.

“More than 3.5 million people call Puget Sound home, and we’re expecting about 1.5 million more people to move into the region in the next 30 years,” said Williams. “As more and more people move here, our activities will increasingly influence our local ecosystems. My colleagues and I study how urbanization may impact the diversity, abundance, and movement of fishes and invertebrates that live in the Sound.” Drawing connections between urbanization and the health of Puget Sound helps students better understand how their day-to-day lives can impact the Sound.

After the Molluscan returned to the dock, the groups of students switched—the boys headed out to sea while the girls explored the beach and learned about water quality in the Sound. Although it is too soon to evaluate the program’s effectiveness, there was one immediate success story: while holding a crab, one young woman proclaimed that she overcame her lifelong fear of boats and invertebrates.

By introducing students to scientists and hands-on research, we are working to ensure students consider careers in marine science and understand the value and purpose of science. Over the long term, we hope that programs such as this will help diversify and strengthen the talent pool; diverse groups have proven to be more innovative and better equipped to solve complex problems, anticipate alternative viewpoints, and produce higher-quality scientific research—valuable assets in any workforce. 

Over the next few years, we will be working with additional partners to offer this opportunity to other underrepresented groups. For more information about this program and partnership opportunities, please contact Alicia Keefe.

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1National Science Foundation, National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics. 2015. Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering: 2015. Special Report NSF 15-311. Arlington, VA. Available at www.nsf.gov/statistics/wmpd.

For more photos of the cruise, go to our Flickr site https://www.flickr.com/photos/nmfs_northwest/albums/72157666633145773

Thank you to all of our partners who brought this pilot to life:

●             James Beam, Scientific Technician, WA Department of Fish and Wildlife

●             Andrea Hennings, Groundfish Biologist, WA Department of Fish and Wildlife

●             Robert Pacunski, Senior Groundfish Biologist/ROV Project Manager, WA Department of Fish and Wildlife

●             Casey Ralston, Education Coordinator, Northwest Fisheries Science Center

●             Carolyn Riley-Payne, ACT-SO Chair, Seattle King County chapter of the NAACP

●             Greg Williams, Research Fishery Biologist, Northwest Fisheries Science Center

●             Louise Wong, Teacher, Rainier Beach High School

Home page photo: Chris Wilson, Flickr