SANTA CRUZ -- Environmentalists have been up in arms about PG&E's plans to use sound guns to map the of the Diablo Canyon Power Plant in San Luis Obispo. Students at Spring Hill School were troubled by the dilemma and set about finding a solution.

"When I heard about it, I thought, is that the only way they can do it? What about other ways?" said fourth-grader Garrett Estrada.

Their science teacher, Aaron Clegg, was following newspaper coverage when he realized it was a perfect opportunity for the students in his fourth-, seventh- and eighth-grade classes to learn about the challenges of marine science -- and practice some creative problem solving.

"When I heard about it, I instantly started thinking about ideas of how we could fix it," said Molly Sharfstein, another fourth-grader.

The Diablo Canyon nuclear reactor sits on the shoreline near several seismically active faults. The Fukushima nuclear disaster that followed the earthquake in Japan in March 2011 prompted PG&E to step up its seismic sea floor mapping efforts. To carry out the proposed survey, boats would trail high-intensity air guns in the water. The air guns would produce blasts of sound at 250 decibels every 15 seconds for at least 12 days. For comparison, a blue whale's call is about 165 decibels.


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Environmental groups are concerned about the toll the continuous noise will take on whales and other marine life. PG&E claims the sound, while annoying to large marine animals, will not permanently harm them.

The California Coastal Commission will review PG&E's plan in mid-November. If approved, the survey could begin in late November.

Clegg and his students aren't opposed to the seismic testing, but they wanted to find a solution that will satisfy PG&E's needs and environmentalists' concerns. Clegg points to the fish ladders that let migrating fish travel past hydrodams as an innovative solution to an environmental concern.

Clegg's students brainstormed ways to conduct the survey with minimal harm to animals, then refined the best ones. Their ideas include using a lower frequency sound or a camera to detect marine animals and proceeding with testing only if the area is clear; using both low and high intensity sounds at the same time and a camera to get a visual of the sea floor; and sending down a submersible robot to visually map the faults.

Some of Clegg's students' questions stumped him and sent him hunting for more information.

"The main thing I want to teach children is how to find out information. So they're seeing me model that when I don't know something," Clegg said.

He stresses that even if the ideas aren't viable ones, they may provide the spark for more workable solutions. He also noted that sometimes nonspecialists are able to propose useful solutions because they have a novel perspective.

"Great ideas can come from anywhere. They can come from children. I wanted to empower the children to share their ideas with people in power," he said.

The next step is to send their ideas to PG&E as well as the Coastal Commission.

"I hope they actually take us seriously," said fourth-grader Caleb Kleet, who doesn't want their ideas to be ignored just because they came from schoolkids.