Students explore underwater at Isle Royale

Photo by Xena Cortez From left, Dollar Bay High School Student Organization of Aquatic Robotics students Arizona Gilles and Cami Daavettila look on as the trained park drivers operate the SOAR ROV.

DOLLAR BAY — The Student Organization of Aquatic Robotics (SOAR) began at Dollar Bay High School in 2011, and according to Matt Zimmer, it is a program students enjoy and learn from.

Zimmer, who is DBHS math and science teacher, and SOAR instructor, said students just returned from a trip to Isle Royale National Park to instruct rangers there on the use of the remotely-operated vehicle to detect zebra mussels and other possible underwater problems.

Zimmer said the SOAR program is for students in ninth to 12th grade.

The SOAR ROV have also been used in Portage Lake in partnership with Michigan Technological University.

Since the SOAR program began, Zimmer said students have been taking the ROVs to Isle Royale, although they haven’t gone out to the island every year since 2011. Bad weather has prevented trips in the past.

The original ROV needed a power cord for each of the ROV motors, which Zimmer said made the machine heavy and awkward to maneuver.

“It’s a digital ROV, now, so they also have to program it,” he said.

The digital machines use a single power cord, Zimmer said. Making the ROVs was wireless considered but doing so restricted movement to only 2 feet.

“Wireless is not an option,” he said.

Also with wireless, Zimmer said the video stream isn’t live.

“The live video stream one of the most important features for the rangers,” he said.

Since the Isle Royale rangers have been using the ROV to look for zebra mussels, Zimmer said the potentially destructive creatures are still in various locations around the island, but their numbers don’t seem to be growing.

“They’re not reproducing themselves at Isle Royale,” he said.

The reason for that isn’t certain, but it may be due to the cold water around the island, Zimmer said.

Besides letting the rangers know of possible problems with zebra mussels or other underwater issues, Zimmer said the use of the ROVs has a positive public relations aspect. When visitors see the ROV being used, they ask questions of the rangers, who inform the visitors about the dangers of zebra mussels, and why it’s important to make sure boats aren’t brought to the island or other locations without making certain the hulls are clear of them.

Zimmer said the ROV are meant to stay with the rangers the entire summer. When it’s brought back to DBHS, students repair it and make possible improvements.

“Everything’s a learning experience,” he said. “You learn at the rate you’re ready to learn.”

The students are very enthusiastic about the SOAR program, which they totally run, Zimmer said.

“They have 100 percent ownership of the program,” he said.