James Cameron helps make science education epic

Academy Award-winning filmmaker James Cameron gives students from wife Suzy Amis Cameron’s MUSE School a tour of the DEEPSEA CHALLENGER submarine last week. Cameron piloted the submarine a record 38,803 feet below the ocean’s surface to the bottom of the Mariana Trench last year as part of a scientific expedition to learn more about the remote seascape. Cameron treated 70 students to tours of the sub on May 8 and 15 to teach them about math and science.

From the enchanting world of Pandora in “Avatar” to the fateful journey of the Titanic, filmmaker James Cameron’s legacy as an epic movie storyteller is unquestioned. On May 8 and 15, Cameron combined his cinematic vision with his passion for oceanic exploration when he gave 70 local children tours of the DEEPSEA CHALLENGER submarine, which last year carried him a record 35,803 feet below the ocean’s surface to the bottom of the Mariana Trench.

The field trips took elementary school and middle school students, ranging in age from five to 12, from Calabasas’ MUSE school located in Malibu Canyon (which Cameron’s wife Suzy Amis Cameron co-founded with sister Rebecca Amis) to the Cameron family’s private ranch north of Santa Barbara, where the sub is currently stored in a barn.

“Children are born scientists, and they ask ‘what this is,’ why things happen a certain way and how certain things work,” Amis Cameron said. “(James) completely had them captivated for over an hour taking them around the sub and the simulator, as well explaining water pressure at full ocean depth.”

Cameron said relating the kids’ innate sense of adventure to math and science was the most important lesson he tried to teach with the trip.

“The kids asked me a lot of questions, and you could gauge their curiosity from that,” said Cameron. “However, one question they did not ask, and that I did not expect them to ask, was why did you do an exploration. To a 7-, 8- or 9-year-old kid, why you build a sub and explore the deepest part of the ocean is not a question you ask, as of course you build a sub and go dive. You are catching kids at an age when they believe all things are possible, and where the world is big and exciting and unknown.

“Culturally, most of us tend to lose that as we get older, so now is the time to catch kids and excite them about science, engineering and math. In that way, you link (science) to fantasy and storytelling.”

In March 2012, Cameron successfully piloted the DEEPSEA CHALLENGER to the Challenger Deep, located in the Mariana Trench 200 miles southwest of Guam. He and his team brought back high-resolution 3D images and footage of unprecedented clarity, collected sediment, physical oceanographic data and biological samples. Analysis of that data, in turn, led to the discovery of 68 new species of ocean life.

The expedition was intended to generate public interest in exploration and in scientific investigation, especially among young people interested in becoming scientists, engineers and explorers. The MUSE tours and future school field trips aimed to fulfill the same mission, according to the Camerons.

“Children really do say, ‘I want to go to the moon. I want to go to the bottom of the ocean. I want to go to the top of Mt. Everest,’” Suzy Amis Cameron said. “The awareness that young kids can do something like James did can potentially be life-changing.”

Cameron says the tours came together quickly because the DEEPSEA CHALLENGER was about to be moved to its new home at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) in Massachusetts. The Camerons realized they held the opportunity to share James’ discoveries with children of an age where they believe anything is possible.

“I thought it would be a shame if we shipped the sub east before kids here could benefit from a hands-on experience climbing around the sub and learning about the science behind it,” said Cameron. “The feedback that we later got from parents and teachers was that the kids were on fire about it on the day they were aboard and the following day.”

The two local trips have since snowballed to a “whistle stop tour,” Cameron said, where the DEEPSEA CHALLENGER will stop at schools in several U.S. cities before spending a few days in Washington D.C. at the White House, followed by another stop at National Geographic Headquarters for their 125th anniversary Gala Dinner, before arriving at WHOI.

Although Cameron’s next big adventure will be making the next two “Avatar” movies, he says it is his hope that the science team at WHOI will keep the sub in an operational standby mode. He said he will also be working closely with the institute to attract funding for a future program of HADAL exploration, the deepest parts of the ocean that extend 6,000 to 11,000 meters below the ocean’s surface.

“If you add these areas up, they comprise an area greater than the continental United States,” Cameron said. “It ends up being an unexplored continent.”