Longmont's Skyline High students build shark measuring device for Boulder researcher

Two Skyline High seniors are fine-tuning an underwater shark measuring device that will be used later this month in research.

Alejandro Coronado and Marco Guerrero, who are part of St. Vrain Valley's aquatics robotics team at the school district's Innovation Center, created the device for Boulder-based Ocean First Institute executive director Mikki McComb-Kobza.

"It's just cool that high schoolers are building this," Coronado said. "It's really fun to play with all these toys."

The aquatics robotics team was initially created through a partnership with the Denver Zoo, with students modifying an underwater robot that's being used in the zoo's work on surveys of a frog found only in Peru's Lake Titicaca.

For their latest project, the shark measuring device is headed to the Pacific Ocean later this month with McComb-Kobza, who is diving with great white sharks as part of a research project.

McComb-Kobza initially wanted to borrow the underwater robot. But it was too cumbersome, so the students worked on creating something easier to use.

"What we built is cheap, easy to use and easy to put together," Guerrero said.

The students said building the lightweight, handheld frame from PVC pipe was the easy part. A trickier component is spacing and calibrating the lasers. To make sure the device is accurate, they're going low-tech by using a picture of a shark taped to a whiteboard.

The lasers are on the ends, set a distance of 50 centimeters apart, with a GoPro camera in the middle. McComb-Kobza will project the two spots from the laser beams onto the side flank of the shark as it swims by, with the camera taking pictures and video.

Then, she'll find the best images. From a photograph, she can calculate the pixels between the laser points and use that to calculate the total length of the shark with the help of a software program. The same method previously was used to measure whale sharks.

Along with working with the Innovation team, McComb-Kobza in September visited a Longmont High School animal behavior class to talk about her research.

After her research trip, she's also planning a live webinar for students and teachers. The webinar, to be held at the shark lab at California State University Long Beach, is set for 10:30 a.m. MST on Oct. 24.

Starting Oct. 15, she's planning to spend five days observing great white sharks from submersible cages near the remote island of Isla Guadalupe, 150 miles west off Mexico's Baja California Peninsula in the Pacific Ocean.

The island is home to a population of more than 120 great white sharks.

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