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Land locked to open ocean Putting a pH sensor in the hands of students?

8.1. The current average pH of the ocean after being reduced significantly from decades of rampant carbon dioxide being pumped into the atmosphere, and ultimately, absorbed by our ocean. But how is pH measured? If a citizen scientist wants to see this for themselves, is it possible? Measuring ocean pH typically requires expensive equipment and trained operators. Commonly these instruments, while highly accurate, haven't been available to those outside of the scientific community. Recently, the curious mind and drive of William Pardis, a former student at Flathead Valley Community College, allowed this disconnect to be bridged with the development of the pHyter.

The pHyter is a hand-held pH measuring instrument that is affordable, accurate, and durable. It opens the door to ocean pH monitoring to not only more researchers but also to educators, students, oyster growers, fishermen, and citizen scientists. Additionally, the new device provides the opportunity for the development of a global ocean acidification data map. By combining technologies already in place, the data that is collected can be uploaded to a collaborative database piecing together measurements from around the world.

Ocean monitoring advancements from an unexpected place: Montana

Where did the pHyter come from? Why was it developed? It was not created in a lab or an oceanographic institute, rather, it was developed in William’s garage in landlocked Montana. While attending Flathead Valley Community College, William met Dr. David Long, an Associate Professor at the college, who was looking for an instrument that his class could use to measure pH when they traveled to the South Pacific. “William walked through my door one day and I threw a paper at him and said ‘Hey can you make one of these?’ The paper described a very primitive device that just didn’t work very well,” said Dr. Long describing the inception of the pHyter. “He just took the design and ran with it."

“My goal at Flathead Valley Community College is to provide the opportunity for truly talented people to make it to where they really want to go and make serious contributions,” continued Dr. Long. “My students are fellow scientists and that’s important. There are an awful lot of people out there in rural America who are independent thinkers. With my research program, the whole point is to give students an opportunity to experience a career before they are committed to it.”

Where did NOAA come into the equation?

NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries West Coast Region collaborated with Dr. David Long and former student William Pardis from Flathead Valley Community College with funding in large part by the NOAA Ocean Acidification Education Mini-Grant Program. The grant allowed the opportunity to not only pilot test the pHyter instrument but to develop an Ocean Acidification Plankton Monitoring curriculum. From this initial pilot program, the curriculum has been adopted by schools on the Olympic Peninsula, including an Ocean Guardian School. It even earned students from the Quileute Tribal School in La Push, Washington, the title of “Get Dirty!” Ambassadors by Nickelodeon to help support community involvement and environmental education.

“This instrument can change the landscape of pH monitoring around the world. It was so exciting to get it into the hands of people and give them ownership over the health of our ocean and understanding it,” said Nicole Harris, Education Specialist with Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary.

“Our intention through this pilot was to get the tools to teachers, information into the schools through the teachers and students, and then make it grow,” added Jacqueline Laverdure, Education and Outreach Coordinator with Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary.

Hands-on Approach to Teaching Ocean Chemistry

Ocean acidification (OA) refers to a change in ocean chemistry in response to the uptake of increasing carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere due to the burning of fossil fuels such as coal, gas, and oil, along with land-use change. Seeing that OA can be difficult to conceptualize, the pHyter allows for a hands-on learning approach for students to not only collect data, but to independently come to the conclusion that the ocean is increasing in acidity. The curriculum developed by National Marine Sanctuaries of the West Coast consists of four modules that guide students through concepts of OA, effective contributions to scientific discovery, analysis and interpretation of data, and stewardship actions related to OA. By putting the technology into the hands of the students and making them part of the research efforts; it brings students into the conversations around ocean acidification.

“The one thing that struck me with the pHyter, is the aspect of bringing the human element back. It seems to have a very educational and systemic impact that goes beyond just getting quantitative data, but gets people to qualitatively understand the issue,” said William, the co-creator of pHyter and now an engineer at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. “It brings people closer to the science. It enables people who wouldn’t normally be able to, to witness this phenomenon.”

Looking to the pHuture

The pHyter team is currently working with Sunburst Sensors to constantly test and improve on the instrument’s accuracy, user interface, and design. The current challenge being faced, however, is meeting the requests from educators, researchers, and citizen scientists across the world. This is not the first time the team has faced challenges and certainly will not be the last. What keeps them motivated to constantly move forward is the vision for the device that William laid out: “Imagine people across the developing world making observations and uploading data to a database and what it could be like for them to actively participate in advancing their own understanding of ocean chemistry and the ocean environment.”