Diving School Profile: Great Lakes Water Studies Institute

The campus facilities include a 60,000-gallon indoor training tank and multiple laboratories where students learn core competencies.

great lakes water studies institute

You could call it beginner’s luck, or the natural result of pairing bright minds with new technology. But either way, when students at the Great Lakes Water Studies Institute located a sunken vessel in Grand Traverse Bay back in 2009, it marked the start of something big.

Students and faculty had gotten several days of training from the manufacturer of a new piece of sonar-mapping equipment before venturing out on their own. On their first foray, the group met with success, pinpointing the location of the Lauren Castle, a tugboat that had sunk in 400 feet of water in 1980.

Soon afterward, the manufacturer publicized their discovery, prompting employers in the marine industry to begin calling the school in search of students who could operate high-tech equipment.

Hans Van Sumeren, director of the Great Lakes Water Studies Institute, had to explain that the school had no such program in place. But he asked questions about which skills those employers were looking for and quickly recognized that there was a huge gap between the industry’s needs and the instruction students were receiving at colleges and universities.

great lakes water studies institute

Armed with that knowledge, Van Sumeren helped to establish the school’s marine technology program, giving students real-world experience using remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), sonar systems and more. The Great Lakes Water Studies Institute is part of Northwestern Michigan College in Traverse City and has its own harbor on Lake Michigan.

“To get from my classroom, to the boat and to 100 meters of water takes about 20 minutes,” Van Sumeren said.

By the time students have earned their bachelor’s degree, they typically have spent more than 50 days aboard a research vessel, learning how to use ROVs and other equipment. So far, approximately 50 students have earned four-year degrees, with about 20 more receiving associate’s degrees, Van Sumeren said.

One major selling point for the program is that graduates are in high demand. At a hydrography conference a few years ago, several companies approached Van Sumeren looking to hire about 50 people, reflecting the program’s track record of success and the industry’s hunger for talented workers.

“Every single graduate of our program is working in the marine industry, and many of them have had some fantastic opportunities,” he said. “That’s something that I’m extremely proud of because we built this program from the ground up.”

The school has a 56-foot research vessel named the Northwestern, an aluminum-hull, twin-engine boat that can comfortably accommodate 20 passengers on day trips. The Northwestern runs on biodiesel and cruises at a speed of 10 knots. The program also a smaller boat that can be towed to inland lakes and an unmanned surface vessel (USV) equipped with sonar equipment and hydrographic technology.

great lakes water studies institute

The program’s ROVs include a Seaeye Falcon, two Sub-Atlantic Mojave vehicles and an Outland 1000, and it has multibeam, side-scan and scanning sonar equipment, both owned and borrowed, from Kongsberg Maritime, R2Sonic and Edgetech, among others. Students also gain experience using marine data collection and processing software from Hypack and QPS.

The campus facilities include a 60,000-gallon indoor training tank and multiple laboratories where students learn core competencies such as electronics, programming and fluid power systems.

Van Sumeren said the Great Lakes Water Studies Institute benefits from partnerships with many companies and government agencies. The school shares ROVs and other resources with the Michigan State Police and the Grand Traverse County Sheriff’s Office, giving students access to a broader range of equipment.

Similarly, the school has a partnership with Consumers Energy, which supplies natural gas and electricity to 6.7 million Michigan residents. Using the school’s equipment, students will perform inspections of dam structures and hydroelectric facilities, collecting data and delivering reports back to the company. In some cases, students have identified structural and maintenance issues that went unnoticed by seasoned inspectors, Van Sumeren said.

“Those public/private partnerships have been critical to the success of our program,” he said. “We’re not just showing students how to use this equipment. They’re doing complete inspections of infrastructure, whether it’s hydroelectric facilities, water intakes, marinas or structures in the coastal environment. They’re also doing work on shipwrecks, fisheries and habitat, nautical charting – all the activities that they’ll be doing in their jobs.”

great lakes water studies institute

Van Sumeren also has taken his talents to China. The school has partnered with the Yellow River Conservancy Technical Institute in Kaifeng, where more than 150 students have earned associate’s degrees in marine technology over the past three years. Instructors from the Great Lakes Water Studies Institute have spent considerable time teaching Chinese students through translators, both in person and remotely due to the pandemic, he said.

“China is facing the same need as the United States for talented workers to do this kind of work, so that international component has been a priority for us,” Van Sumeren said. “We’re training their students and their faculty using their equipment so that they can build out this same program there.”

Back in the United States, Van Sumeren said students can look forward to participating in Lakebed 2030, an initiative involving the U.S. Geological Survey, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and others. The goal is to use the latest marine technology to produce comprehensive maps of the Great Lakes’ floors by the end of this decade. To date, less than 15% of the Great Lakes have been mapped at high-density, according to the group.

Van Sumeren said Lakebed 2030 was inspired in part by Seabed 2030, an international collaboration to produce a complete map of the world’s ocean floors by 2030.

“It may take longer than a decade to map the Great Lakes, but I’m really excited that we’ve been a leader in this project,” he said.