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On the water with the Shedd: Bringing public up close and personal with research

Resized/Sun-Times

Marie Kowalski demonstrates the ROV Wednesday on one of the Shedd's Boat Excursions, a pilot program this summer for the public to experience being a citizen scientist.
Dale Bowman/Sun-Times

Inside the cabin of the Double Jameson, we clustered around the video screen as a young woman operated an ROV on the bottom of the outer harbor at Jackson Park.

“Everybody should see this,’’ Louise McCurry said. “This is the most exciting thing I have done in ages.’’

It was cool to watch the ROV (remotely operated vehicle) motor through vegetation, over shells and past a couple fish. One was a carp. I think the other was a rock bass.

The Shedd Aquarium’s pilot program, Shedd’s Boat Excursion, is geared to “immerse guests in the world of freshwater science and exploration. Whether on the Chicago River or Lake Michigan excursion, riders will step on board and become citizen scientists, getting a first-hand look at how a research vessel operates.’’

The Shedd is good at public interactions, so I have faith this pilot will be brought back for more summers.

The divide between science and the public keeps widening. Anything that lessens that gap is worth it. Even more, it’s vital to keep us as citizens from sliding into the hand-over-the-eyes denial of science far too common.

I’ve observed many research projects, including with the Shedd. As good as it is to read or watch stories on research projects, nothing beats hands-on.

With the northerly winds Wednesday, I figured we would not be going out on Lake Michigan. But Capt. Adam Karras did have Capt. Stafford Crossland take us to the breakwall at Jackson Harbor so we could feel the waves.

This was an event for the general public, so Karras gave an overview and said, “Like a roller coaster, keep hands and feet inside the boat.’’

Mary Gryzbek, from the Shedd’s Learning and Community Program, gave boat basics: stern (back), bow (front), port (left) and starboard (right).

Gryzbek and Marie Kowalski, also with LCP, handed out bird guides and binoculars. I noted swallows, gulls, mallards and Canada geese.

When Karras walked around the boat to hook a rope to a mooring buoy, we joked about him going in, but Crossland said no one was going in today.

“I’ll go in,’’ Gail Boyd volunteered.

With the Double Jameson, a custom-built 41-foot research vessel, tied off, Kowalski showed the ROV and how to use it. It was named Grace Hopper, for the computer scientist and mathematician, in a Shedd contest. Yes, the Shedd is adroit at dealing with the public.

After the ROV was lowered into the water, the young woman did a good job of motoring it around while the rest of us marveled. Again, it was McCurry who said, “I have never seen this before. This really makes my day.’’

resized/Sun-Times

Mary Gryzbek demonstrated
a plankton town Wednesday on one of the Shedd’s Boat Excursions, a pilot program this summer for the public to experience being a citizen scientist.
Dale Bowman/Sun-Times

Once the ROV was back in the boat and stored, Gryzbek demonstrated a plankton tow, basically a butterfly net with finer mesh, as we headed back to the dock. Kowalski handed out iPads. Then Gryzbek used a remote microscope, which we could view on our iPads.

There was phytoplankton and other things in the sample drawn. Gryzbek also pulled out slides from the Shedd to show what zooplankton looked like.

Then she brought out a bag of microbeads for comparison and made the link to why they’re so dangerous. The 90-minute trip concluded with the handing out of reusable stainless steel straws, the final lesson.

Click here for details on the Shedd’s Boat Excursions.