Robert D. Ballard

1997 Excellence in Earth and Space Science Education Award Winner

Robert D. Ballard was awarded the Excellence in Geophysical Education Award at the AGU Fall Meeting Honors Ceremony, which was held on December 10, 1997, in San Francisco, California. The award recognizes a sustained commitment to excellence in geophysical education.


“One of my first tasks when I arrived in the United States in 1974 as a new faculty member at the University of Rhode Island was to participate in the Ph.D. examination of Robert Ballard. This energetic and talented graduate student was already the leading veteran in the application of submersibles to the study of the ocean floor and had successfully applied the new technology in his thesis research on the New England continental shelf. Coming from the more traditional European cultural environment, I was immediately struck by Bob’s refreshing can-do approach and typical no-nonsense American attitude. We did our best to probe for weaknesses in Bob’s doctoral dissertation, but I seem to remember that towards the end of the defense, the discussion veered more and more to his involvement with Project FAMOUS that summer—the first submersible exploration of the mid-ocean ridge. With characteristic drive, Bob mounted and collaborated in a number of other deep dive expeditions, culminating in 1977 with the stunning discovery of hydrothermal vents on the Galapagos Rift, a finding that is fundamental to our understanding of the chemical evolution of the oceans and the origin of polymetallic sulfide ore deposits.

“Inevitably, Bob realized that the tools he had helped develop in the Deep Submergence Laboratory at Woods Hole had applications far broader than Earth science. Here emerges the scientist-explorer, who has the vision to exploit the new technology to really open up the hidden secrets of the deep, which he has done particularly in the field of nautical archaeology. But Bob has continued to break the mold in more ways than one: he rapidly realized that remotely operated vehicles were faster, cheaper, and much more efficient than the manned submersibles and most important, safe. The quick succession of discoveries (Titanic, Bismarck, Lusitania, etc.) launched Ballard in orbit with Cousteau as the premier spokesman of marine science in the eyes of the general public. Gifted with charisma, and an exceptional talent for telling a story and for explaining scientific concepts to the lay person, Bob inevitably became a media phenomenon. Predictably, many of his scientific colleagues reacted with some envy to his fame and nontraditional style, but this has never deterred Bob from steering the direct course dictated by his unselfish vision. He reasoned that if you can replace the view through the tiny porthole of the submersible with a much better live image on a high-resolution monitor in the ship’s lab, then you could take this one step further and transmit the live image worldwide to allow the rest of humanity to share in the excitement of the moment of discovery on the ocean floor.

“After the Titanic discovery, Bob’s desk at Woods Hole was flooded with letters from school children posing endless questions about his work, about the new technology, and about Earth science and oceanography in general. Why not take the kids on the next expedition? After all, exploration of the unknown should ideally be done not just by the lucky few, but by all those interested in expanding their horizon of knowledge. Telepresence, as Bob is apt to call it, could bring the adventure and excitement of science and exploration into the classroom.

“Thus was launched the JASON Project, beginning with an expedition in the Mediterranean in 1989, and continuing annually ever since with resounding success. No other effort has done so much to excite youngsters about science and to stimulate their curiosity about the way in which the Earth works. Focusing annually on a specific theme (a ridge, a hot spot, etc.), Bob’s team has collaborated closely with teachers throughout North America in developing a semester-long curriculum, preparing students for participation in the 2-week-long field expedition of discovery on the seafloor or on land, in which scientists can interact with school children through telepresence, educating them about some basic principles, and conveying to them the excitement of studying science as a means to explore the Earth. The number of students reached by the JASON Project has grown steadily, from 200,000 in 1989 to over 2 million in 1997. In this manner, the JASON Project has given over 5 million young students the opportunity to participate in the study of the Earth. A tiny fraction of them may become scientists in the future, but most important, they will all carry with them and recall in later life a sense of excitement about scientific discovery and exploration.”

—HARALDUR SIGURDSSON, University of Rhode Island.


“I would like to thank the American Geophysical Union for honoring me with the Award for Excellence in Geophysical Education. This is a great honor, both for me and for the JASON Foundation for Education.

“Like AGU, we at the JASON Project are dedicated to promoting the study of Earth and its environment in space. We know that young people are our future leaders in government, industry, science, and technology. It is crucial that we instill in them a desire to learn and a hunger for knowledge, especially in science and technology. Many people fail to realize that all children are born scientists, and the first question they ask is ‘Why?’ Rather than discouraging that interest, we must support it, answer each question to the best of our abilities, and continue to encourage them even more.

“I found that interest in 1985 after I came back from discovering the Titanic. Upon my return, I received thousands of letters from school children who wanted to accompany me on my next underwater expedition. This surge of interest in science is what gave me the incentive to begin a program that would bring the thrill of scientific discovery to students worldwide, all year-round.

“Next year, the official ‘International Year of the Ocean,’ marks JASON’s ninth journey as ‘Oceans of Earth and Beyond’ plunges students to the ocean floor to study the structures of ocean water and the life they support, such as kelp forests, coral reefs, and exotic deep-sea creatures. In March 26, 1998, competitively selected students and six teachers, called ‘argonauts,’ will serve as ambassadors to all students by traveling with the JASON scientists and production team to Monterey Bay, California, USA. The argonauts help bring science to life as millions of students in classrooms around the world are transported via telepresence to the expedition site. Many students at special sites will have the opportunity to control remotely operated vehicles to help researchers gather data.

“The grandfather of all distance-learning programs, the JASON Project is the only multimedia, multidiscipline, curriculum-based scientific and technological experience with the mission of exciting and engaging students. JASON makes science and technology exciting through the use of a unique hands-on learning experience that literally takes the students to the location of the day’s lesson. Since the first JASON expedition, the program has become fully interactive, with teacher training and professional development, local field investigations, JASON Online Systems, JASON@School, the JASON Web site, and statewide and regional networks.

“My work with JASON and millions of school children has enlightened and continues to excite me. I have had the opportunity to see our future scientists, industrial leaders, and citizens at work, and I feel reassured that knowledge is giving them confidence and a perspective on how the world really works. By remaining committed to science education, all of us can contribute to the widespread confidence and success of our future leaders.”

—ROBERT D. BALLARD, Institute for Exploration, Mystic, Connecticut