Seafaring students dive into STEM careers

Cervantes (left) and Livelybrooks broadcast from the Atlantis
Cervantes (left) and Livelybrooks broadcast from the Atlantis

In front of the camera, UO geophysicist Dean Livelybrooks gestures to a screen that shows scientists retrieving a device that measures earthquake activity from the ocean floor.

Behind the camera, community college student Jonás Cervantes beams Livelybrooks’ narrative live to 500 people watching from an aquarium theater in Texas. The broadcast is done from the research vessel Atlantis, rolling in waves of the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California.

Hard to believe that this scene is rooted in the math and science courses you dreaded in high school.

But that’s the point. There can be an excitement to STEM careers – science, technology, engineering and math – that can’t be captured in a textbook, Livelybrooks and others say, and helping students tap into it will inspire interest in those fields.

Each year, about 1 million U.S. high school freshmen declare interest in a STEM-related field – more than 1 in 4. By the time they graduate, more than half will lose interest in a STEM career.

Livelybrooks is helping to reverse that trend. He’s part of a national effort to feed the nation’s growing need for scientists and engineers by increasing interest in STEM careers among students in K-12 and community colleges. For five years, he’s run a program that brings 20 to 30 community college students to the UO each summer to get hands-on experience working in research.

This is also the third year that Livelybrooks has found space for community college students on research vessels in the Cascadia Initiative, a national project led by UO geophysicist Doug Toomey to gauge earthquake risk in the Northwest. The students log earthquake data, work with seismology equipment and experiment with a variety of telecommunications, all under the eye of experts in those fields.

“There are a lot of people in community college who have never really met a scientist or engineer and don’t know what those jobs are like,” Livelybrooks said. “Out here, they’re witnessing lots of scientists and engineers in action and working as a team. They’ll be able to go back to their institutions and say, ‘This is what we did out on the Atlantis.’

“My hope,” he added, “is that that will serve to inspire their peers to also consider careers as scientists and engineers.”

Cervantes and Haley Domer are already hooked.

Cervantes, of Linn-Benton Community College, and Domer, accepted to Portland State University, joined the Atlantis research team for the June 25-July 9 mission to recover seismometers along the Oregon and California coastline. Both said the experience is solidifying their plans to pursue STEM careers.

It’s not always easy being interested in things like geology or aerospace technology, the two said – they’ve heard the label “geek” more than a few times over the years. “Yeah, for 24 years,” Cervantes laughed. “Kids would steal my rock collection.”

On the Atlantis, however, Cervantes and Domer are pursuing their intellectual curiosities without distraction.

Domer, drawn to biology, geology and engineering, has been tracking the ship’s locations and movement and also working with bathymetry, the study of underwater depths of ocean floors.

“The thing that’s been most interesting to me is the rock sample we brought up, and the ocean bottom,” she said. “I think (this experience) will be good for me to figure out what I want to do.”

Cervantes, who was part of a Linn-Benton team that placed fifth in an international competition to design a remotely operated vehicle, has been able to observe one in action: Jason, the multi-million dollar ROV used on Atlantis to recover ocean-bottom seismometers.

Students avoid math and science classes because they feel they aren’t smart enough, Cervantes said. But he’s an advocate for those courses and the careers they lead to, saying it isn’t a question of intellect, but commitment.

“It’s not about how intelligent you are,” Cervantes said. “It’s about how willing you are to pursue your goal.”

As a physics major, Cervantes is part of a surge in interest in physics at the community college, said physics instructor Greg Mulder, also a member of the Atlantis research trip. He credits the TV show, “The Big Bang Theory,” speculating that students are inspired by the passion the characters show for understanding the universe.

Cervantes, Domer and other students on board the Atlantis witness that passion for discovery every day, Mulder said – as well as the less-glamorous aspects of being a scientist, like endless logging of data.

“They can see both the sexiness and the tedium that’s required for scientific investigation,” Mulder said. “If you thought you wanted to be a geophysicist, who would have thought you’d have to be on a boat and seasick for a couple days? They don’t teach you that as an undergraduate.”

- by Matt Cooper, UO Office of Strategic Communications