Last year, students from Mercy Academy recorded a rare species of cave fish and a sunken boat likely from the 1800s when navigating previously unexplored areas of Mammoth Cave with submersible robots they designed and built. They used a variety of sensors to map, explore and test these uncharted areas.
This year, the group’s findings, titled “Exploration of Mammoth Cave Pools with Submersible Remotely Operated Vehicles,” will be presented April 18-20 at the 11th Research Symposium at Mammoth Cave National Park, hosted by the Western Kentucky University branch of the Mammoth Cave International Center for Science and Learning.
Students have returned to the cave several times since that first endeavor, each time with devices that have been tweaked to do more and work better to enhance their research. The custom design included a variety of sensors, such as HD video, depth monitors and a thermometer that provided the group with 3-D maps.
“Learning how to use and assemble all the materials used to build the submarine was a completely new and unique experience, but it definitely sparked my interest in a field combining both design and research,” explained Mercy senior Olivia Hennis.
Students joining Hennis on the project were seniors Savana Altenstadter, Catherine Johnson and Amber Willett, as well as juniors Claire Curry, Jill Vorreiter and Julianne Wise, who joined the team this spring.
The robots allowed the students to explore areas that would be unsafe for divers. The next step in the project includes completing a 3-D underwater map of a previously unmapped part of the River Styx.
“This project has two aims,” explained Dr. Eric Wong, Mercy ecology teacher and project co-organizer. “The first is to provide a unique educational opportunity for high school students to take the ecological knowledge and engineering skills they have learned and used in the classroom, and apply them to original research in the cave. The second is to expand the existing knowledge about the aquatic community ecology and geology of the cave system by using our ROV (remotely operated vehicle) to increase accessibility.”
Mercy Academy is the first and only all-girl certified STEM school in the nation and the first STEM school of any kind in Kentucky. It was certified earlier this year. Mercy Academy was founded in 1885 by the Sisters of Mercy.