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Volcanoes of the Deep

Ideas from Teachers

(Gr. 5)
NOVA's "Volcanoes of the Deep" program is an excellent example of life in conditions that we would not consider favorable. This could open a discussion of how life evolved here on earth or on other parts of the universe. Students could research what conditions are needed for life and where life exists that is not a desired location. The super-heated water streaming from the vents make me think of areas of the world that use the heat from the earth for heating. Thermal heating systems also make use of the earth's heat. The cause of this pressure and the buildup of the minerals in the towers would be fascinating discoveries. The vehicles and machines that are used to find, examine, and capture the specimens are also topics to explore. Students could also compare earth life conditions 4 billion years ago with conditions now. Students could compare and contrast the ocean floor volcanoes with volcanoes on land. What are the similarities and differences?

Students could build a simple crane and/or submergible craft and experiment getting some objects from a container of water. They would have to solve problems to overcome any obstacles to their mission.

I'm sure my 5th grade students will be entranced with this story. We build robots in my classroom, so they will understand some difficulties in using them to do work. Our latest robots can be seen at

Sent in by
Sharon Simon
Davis Creek Elementary
Barboursville, WV

(Gr. 6)
It just so happens that we finished our unit on landforms (which included among other things, volcanoes) last week. My students asked if there were any erupting under the ocean and I found a program on Hawaii. I'm going to go right back to them with NOVA's "Volcanoes of the Deep" program, even though we've started our astronomy unit. It will be a perfect tie-in to that too, even though I was surprised the program itself didn't touch on the subject of life existing in other places of our solar system, and elsewhere in the universe. Some of my students asked about the possibility of an ocean existing on Europa and why do scientists think life might exist there if it is covered in ice? I happened to mention the undersea volcanic vents and the life that exists there in the cold and dark, similar to what it might be on Europa. Now I can show them!! This program has already shot up to the top level of favorite videos to use in the classroom because of its connectivity to many topics (origin of life on Earth, adaptations of animals to their environment, scientific careers, etc.).

A colleague and I were discussing a definition of science she recently heard that states "science is not about knowing as much as it is about finding out." This show about "exploring strange new worlds and seeking out new life," and the technology that had to be developed in order to make it possible, is all about "finding out."

Sent in by
Dan Reidy
Moultonborough Central School
Moultonborough, NH

(Gr. 7-8)
NOVA's "Volcanoes of the Deep" program describes the unexpected and awe-inspiring spectacle of life among hydrothermal vents found along the Mid-Pacific Ridge. Here's a golden opportunity for science teachers to allow their students to investigate a relatively new scientific discovery and experience how established scientific concepts become the keys to interpreting such new discoveries.

The phenomenon of mid-ocean ridge hydrothermal vents dissembles into three separate disciplines:

  • the geology of venting and tower building

  • the microbiology of non-photosynthetic energy binding

  • the adaptation of life forms able to exploit this habitat

All three areas offer opportunities for science investigations for middle grades through High School. Specific suggestions for lessons and activities are described below.

Here are some lesson thoughts: Although mid-ocean ridge vents and towers are a relatively new discovery, the mechanism by which they are created is well known to geology. Under one set of conditions, minerals dissolve in water. When those conditions change, the minerals leave solution and form solids. The most common conditions which control the solution or precipitation of these minerals are temperature, pH, and concentration of the minerals. The Tufa Towers of Mono Lake in California are mineral accumulations formed by movement of mineral-bearing water near the shore.

Springs that pass through limestone formations are heavily charged with calcium carbonate, part of which is promptly deposited where the spring emerges. These deposits, called travertine, are formed at the rim of the spring pool. A time passes, a series of terraced, shallow pools results.

And even the familiar stalactites and stalagmites of solution caves owe their formation to the slight evaporation and loss of carbon dioxide that occurs when carbonate-charged water drips into air filled chambers.

The geysers and associated hot springs of Yellowstone National Park build cones and terraced deposits around their orifices of silica (silicon dioxide). Chemical studies have demonstrated that ground water percolating through the volcanic rocks of Yellowstone become alkaline (high pH) and in such condition take up appreciable silica in solution. Then, when they cool upon reaching the surface, the silica is dropped as a spongy material. This is very similar to the mechanism of mid-ocean ridge tower building. Geologists are a prolific bunch when it comes to web publishing. Have your students search for the different forms and make comparisons to see the similarities among them.

There are numerous experiments for middle through High School grade that explore solutions and precipitation of solids from solution. You can begin with the simple evaporation of a saucer of salt water to form large salt crystals. A great source of easy, sure-fire, and inexpensive activities is Tops Learning Systems, I particularly recommend number 12, Solutions, as an introduction to solutions.

Some years ago, I experimented with "Magic Rocks", a chemical garden sold as a novelty by Edmund Scientifics among others. These crystals form hollow towers of silicate of various colors as they grow in a solution of sodium silicate. The mechanism of crystal growth and tower growth are greatly influenced by density/buoyancy concepts. Classes working with physical chemistry might like to interpret the role density/buoyancy plays in the shape of the Magic Rock forms. The same principles influence the shape of mid-ocean ridge towers. Related to this idea are the Space Shuttle experiments designed to study crystal growth in a microgravity environment. On Earth, changes in solution density as crystals form generate small currents along the crystal face that lead to imperfections in the resulting crystal. On the shuttle, these currents shouldn't form. Would this result in perfect crystals? Have your kids search and see.

Taking these thoughts a bit further, to the extent that mid-ocean ridge towers may form on other worlds, would the shape (height Vs. width) change if the world had a higher gravity? lower gravity? How 'bout different density gradients in the circulating fluids. Lots of possible student designed experiments here. Oh, and while you're at it, set up some rock candy (sugar crystals) jars for a little post-experiment treat.

This area of student investigation is probably the most difficult. Actual experimentation will involve microbiological cultures and will be limited to older students with the requisite equipment. However, all students can research the roll of chemosynthesizing bacteria in various environments. Students who have visited salt marshes and flats during low tide will know first hand of the smelly black mud just under the surface. These observations are the result of Desulfovibrio, a chemosynthesizer that makes its living reducing sulfates to hydrogen sulfide. The hydrogen sulfide smells of rotten eggs and reacts with metals, turning them black. Is hydrogen sulfide the cause of the black "smoke coming from the smokers?

The third component of mid-ocean ridge volcanoes is the adaptation of life to this unusual environment. There are so many possible explorations of unusual adaptations that suggesting lines becomes arbitrary. A better approach is to ask yourself: "What unusual habitat might I like to investigate?" The answer will point you to your adaptation(s).

Better still is to ask the question of the class and allow them to seek in an area of personal interest. However, here are a few favorites to start the ideas flowing:

  • Bacteria that live in the hot pools around geysers. The water is nearly boilling in extreme cases, and yet the internal chemistry of the bacteria is not disrupted.

  • Algal cells that live just under the surface of Antarctic snows.

  • Non-green plants that live in darkness on the walls of solution caves.

  • Or the blind cave fish that live in the same dark caves.

  • And of course the life found in the Mars rocks. (or not).

Needless to say, this program provides an excellent thought-cooker for these connections.

Sent in by
James Sammons
Jamestown School
Jamestown, RI

(Gr. 7-8)
I love volcanoes! Last semester one of the classes explored ocean floors. I had on laser pictures of three-second frames of vent worms, blind crabs, giant clams, and black smokers. The class was curious as to what would happen if any or some of the life forms were brought to the surface to be studied. Finding information for 8th grade level was very difficult and, what we did find, did not answer many of our questions.

As part of the Jason Project the students had familiarity with Alvin and Jason. The role the submersibles played in NOVA's "Volcanoes of the Deep" program gave a greater dimension to their abilities in science research now and in the future. We traced Alvin back to 1972 in early explorations of the ocean's floor. Then Jason came along to take us through the kelp forest off the coast of California during Jason Project IX. You can find the project at

Explaining the activity of the ocean floor and plate tectonics has been difficult. You cannot see the ocean floor as you do hills and plains. With models you still are working with the "invisible." Volcanoes give credibility to the many aspects of our changing earth and "stuff" becomes reasonable to understand.

I will use all of this program in grades 7 and 8. In fact, I find the content so strong that it would be better to integrate my classroom material into the program. Also, there are segments that I could see would be very instructional for the lower grades.

Sent in by
Mary Beth Katz
Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic School
Homewood, AL

(Gr. 8)
In the words of my 12-year-old son, "Wow dad! That was awesome! I can't wait for the kids at school to see this one!"

NOVA's "Volcanoes of the Deep" program presents an amazing blend of science and cinematography. I have always told my middle school students that the current classification system (taxonomy) may have to be adjusted, depending on what we find down deep in earth's inner space (not to mention what we may find in the far reaches of outer space). Lo and behold, what do I see on my TV? Strange new life from miles beneath the ocean's surface.

Of course the program doesn't pause with the recognition of the biologists! The computer scientists and mathematicians were instrumental in the exploration and collection of the data. The physicists, engineers, chemists, other scientists and technicians, and the mariners were indispensable in the design and employment of the undersea collection apparatus.

This is the kind of program that doesn't just nod toward the National Science Standards, it directly supports them. In this single program we see numerous examples of scientists doing "actual" science—from establishing the initial problem, formulating the hypothesis, gathering data, testing, testing, testing, and testing some more, and then presenting the evidence. By viewing this program, students will gain a real appreciation of "how we know" what we know in science, as well as an understanding of the nature of science. As Ed Mathez said, "You don't really know if you're going to get what it is you set out to get." It's just part of the mystery of science.

This program is definitely "must see TV" for my science department, all grade levels.

Sent in by
Wayne French
Lindsay Middle School
Hampton, VA

(Gr. 8)
NOVA's "Volcanoes of the Deep" program was one of the neatest programs yet because of its approach and the application of the standards by real scientists.

It will be used in the classroom in mid-April as a follow-up to our visit to the Challenger Center. We are going on "Mission to Planet Earth," and this program can be used in several ways to extend the mission and tie loose ends together.

Sent in by
Dale Rosene
Marshall Middle School
Marshall, MI

(Gr. 10-12)
I hope some have had a chance to work with kids on NOVA Online's "Volcanoes of the Deep" Web site that come out to support instruction with Volcanoes recently. I had my kids working from the site today and it was wonderful.

So far we have done a bit of the gas laws to calculate pressures. The site does a good job of giving figures to support the calculations. There is so much in the site to support the Standards and some integration of life/Earth and physical science.

I also had the kids try to come up with some solutions to decompression issues for the life forms brought to the surface (there are some adaptations that make this more interesting. But the idea of adapting to the different pressures led to a discussion of the Everest program and altitude sickness. Lots of connections.

We also did a similarity check to see how some of these things might be classified and wow did we get into adaptations and chemosynthesis. In environmental science we (following the National Standards) do a ton with cycles (carbon, water, nitrogen). The question was raised what new cycles would there be at the vents, or how would some of our normal cycles be altered.

Sent in by
Shannon C'de Baca
Thomas Jefferson High School
Council Bluffs, IA

Teacher's Guide
Volcanoes of the Deep

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