Apprentices build floats & careers in Argo Lab

Riser Lab Image

UW College of the Environment News

In the basement of one of UW’s oceanography buildings, visitors see all sorts of strange, ocean-going equipment.  What are those long, yellow tube-things in there — and what on earth do they do? Turns out they’re an instrument known as an Argo float, and they are used globally to monitor ocean properties such as temperature, salinity, pressure and more recently, biogeochemical elements such as oxygen and nitrate. Data collected from the floats is sent back and analyzed in the very aptly named Argo Lab, led by School of Oceanography’s Steve Riser and Alison Gray.

Some say the best way to learn is by doing — and that is exactly what happens in the Argo Lab. Student apprentices work alongside researcher and lab manager Rick Rupan, who teaches students the ins and outs of what makes a major research lab operational.

Apprenticeships have traditionally been a way for subject matter experts to guide and mentor someone new to a field. But recently, the idea of apprentices has been introduced to colleges and universities. This is different from a typical student worker or intern — apprentices work alongside the research team and full-time staff, learning the ropes and doing the work that is critical to the lab. Apprentices shoulder more responsibility than the typical student worker and end up extremely employable. In the case of the Argo Lab, apprentices have a one-hundred percent job placement rate in their field!

Students don’t need to know a lot about oceanography or engineering to become an apprentice in Argo Lab. In fact, Rupan prefers to hire students who are just starting out in their collegiate career so that he can teach them everything they need to know. Apprentices learn how to build floats, including how to solder and program them. They start with non-glamorous work — untying yards of rope, moving and organizing boxes and equipment, among other tasks, and work their way towards more complex duties. Apprentices leave knowing how to run pressure and calibration tests, install float parts, how to bench test and remove parts of Argo floats, and run analysis on the engineering data. Not only do students learn skills in oceanography, but they also leave with experience in engineering, gaining knowledge in the often-overlooked T in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).

“There’s a lot you can learn on your own reading papers, but there’s a limit to that and having people with decades of experience who are willing to sit down with you and mentor you is invaluable,” said Chanelle Cadot, former lab apprentice. “The more you expand your network of people, the more you expand your knowledge. Being able to do that as a student and have people willing to vouch for you as a worker is the biggest thing I got out of this apprenticeship.”

The apprenticeship is especially valuable since oceanography is a very hands-on field, expanding well beyond the pages of a textbook. Being an apprentice allows students to supplement their classroom skills and gain training upfront so they’re ready to work in the field.

“Having an oceanography background in classes really helped me develop an understanding of why we need such good sensors to ensure the highest quality data available,” said inaugural lab technician Charlie Parker. “I was initially drawn to the lab because it utilized cutting edge technology to get the fastest data available, and I love physical oceanography — large circulation, ocean currents and technology.”

Apprentices are also exposed to the collaborative nature of oceanography by experiencing firsthand how to work in teams with other students and senior researchers, learning how projects are better when people with diverse backgrounds work together towards a common goal. This also gives apprentices the opportunity to connect with people who may not be directly related to the project, but are willing and able to offer assistance, to bounce ideas around or offer a different point of view.