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A Lesson In Marine Science At Girls Underwater Robot Camp

When kids gaze up at the moon -- many dream about becoming astronauts. But how many look to the sea for similar inspiration?

The ocean covers more than seventy percent of the planet's surface and less than five percent of it has been studied.  But at least one submarine pilot is working to motivate a new generation of ocean explorers.

At a Pinellas County summer camp -- middle school girls learn about marine technology.   

During construction day at Girls Underwater Robot Camp at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium -- three eighth-graders are wearing safety goggles while building a robot. They’re struggling over the placement of one particular design element.

They look to an instruction video on an I-Pad for clues and their engineering issue is quickly resolved.

One-hundred girls from across the country have built small remotely-operated vehicles designed for running micro-expeditions and this is the second one in Tampa Bay. Co-founder Erika Bergman lives in California and also heads GEECs -- Girls Engineering and Exploration Counselors. The professional ocean expedition leader says the girls at this camp are really valuable engineers. They just don't know it yet.

"They're like Erika -- I didn't know how much I loved screwing two things together or soldering two wires together,” she said. “I didn't know that I loved circuits so much and electronics."

As a steamship engineer and submarine pilot, Bergman has experienced many underwater adventures.  One mission had her crew 300 feet below water piloting towards a shipwreck they detected on sonar but when they looked out the window all they could see was a wall of white and it was moving.

"And all of a sudden we could see clearly that it was a school of thousands of market squid,” she said. “And then kind of like two curtains parting, the squid split up the middle.  They separated off to two sides and there in front of us was this huge shipwreck that we had been looking for."

While she tells the story the girls' eyes light up -- and that's by design. Bergman says she doesn't have enough female peers in oceanography. So while the camps are fun, they're also are meant to spark interest in marine science for the young teenagers and further develop their interest in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM.

One of the girls listening was Allicia Rodgers from Azalea Middle School in St Petersburg and she seems to have found her tribe.

"It's nice to find people like that because kids at my school -- and people who I used to hang out with -- they don't have the same wants and needs as me,” she said. “I like science a lot."

So does Katherine Boyd from Palm Harbor. She spent three years in STEM Academy at Clearwater Fundamental Middle School and says she doesn't see enough girls like her on TV, especially on the Disney channel.

"There's lots of the kind of popular girls that all they care about is fashion and boys and painting their nails and that sort of thing,” she said. “It should be more girls that are interested in STEM and science and math."

It's a fair observation. A recent study from the University of San Diego found that girls exposed to gender stereotypes on television were more likely to perceive scientists as men.

But that's not the case back at camp where the girls lower their robots into the Clearwater Aquarium's stingray tank. Bergman hopes at the end of the three-day camp at least a few of the girls can now envision themselves as ship captains, chief engineers and expedition leaders.

"I want them to be able to write the grants, build the tools, gather the team, and focus on objectives to create huge expeditions,” she said.

And Bergman adds, they don't need a degree in oceanography to get started. For now, they should just avoid bumping their robots into a pod of curious stingrays.

As a reporter, my goal is to tell a story that moves you in some way. To me, the best way to do that begins with listening. Talking to people about their lives and the issues they care about is my favorite part of the job.
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