Drifters Take Students on Scientific Ocean Journeys

The Charger, a 5-foot-long drift boat, has been launched from larger vessels several times throughout its journey across the Atlantic Ocean. Photo courtesy of the crew of the Philadelphia Express

For three years, sophomores at Swampscott High School in Swampscott, Massachusetts, have been releasing drifters—devices that float along and track ocean currents—as part of Chris Ratley’s College Placement II Geometry class.

To a casual observer, geometry class “might not seem the right place for it, but there is so much math you might not think of,” Ratley explains. “These are not honor students; they are sophomores with lots on the ball, but not showing it in the classroom.”
Ratley says the drifter program, which requires students to build, test, launch, and track the devices via the global positioning system, motivates students because they know “their data is being used in an actual science [research program].” Ratley and Brandy Wilbur, the school’s science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) coordinator, learned how to build drifters from Jim Manning, an oceanographer with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Manning, who studies currents around fishing grounds, has been deploying drifters since the early 1990s. “For the last 10 years, I’ve been getting schools involved in building them,” he says. “We wanted to expand the [U.S.] Integrated Ocean Observing System (IOOS).” He says IOOS, which is an umbrella organization of groups making observations of the ocean, was modeled on the National Weather Service.

“Like the National Weather Service puts up weather balloons, we put out drifters,” Manning continues. “Ideally we will have schools preparing drifters, putting them out every year, every couple [of] months.”

Manning has presented workshops and attended meetings of marine education organizations to connect with educators and other groups. He also seeks out grants, such as one from NOAA’s Marine Debris Program, to fund the drifter program. “The Marine Debris Grant will get us 32 drifters. We can just send out equipment to schools, and the schools don’t have to come up with a couple hundred dollars for a transmitter.”

Manning estimates he has worked with nearly 80 different schools. Although students from preK through graduate school have participated in the program, he suggests, “It is best suited for juniors or seniors in high school. They can work with tools to build drifters themselves and be exposed to what oceanography really is. We are trying to recruit more physical oceanographers. Drifters validate the numerical computer models of ocean [currents]. We don’t have many students at the graduate or undergraduate levels who know about this field.

“We want students to be able to download [data supplied by the drifters] and code. We are teaching them basic Python code…The second half of the drifter project is everything from calculating speed given latitude and longitude to dispersion [of the drifters]. It goes from simple addition to complex mathematics. You can compare the observed track to the estimated track. You can do it simply or more complicated. At the higher levels, we’re teaching how to download wind data, river data. As they get further along…students can download model output and try to predict where their drifter will go.”

At Swampscott High School, students build the drifters according to standardized specifications from Manning, but also have the opportunity to modify parts of the design using various materials from home improvement stores. The basic design is composed of a mast with four crossed poles that hold submerged sails, weights, and a GPS unit. “The whole thing is about 4’ tall and 3’ wide. It doesn’t look like a modern scientific device,” says Ratley.

“The research is to make the designs more environmentally friendly [while keeping the] device sturdy enough to stay together,” says Wilbur. “This is a way to bring oceanography into math class. Students are super-engaged because it’s a real research project. They provide meaningful data [for NOAA]…It provides [students] with a different way to learn, an authentic project that means something [while] they’re learning content.

“These devices are deployed close to shore; they provide real-time data and help researchers verify the mathematical models of the ocean current” used to predict such things as the current’s impact on commercial fishing species and where the current might take a person who fell overboard, says Wilbur. “A drifter provides real-time information about how surface waters are really moving.”

Ratley’s geometry students learn how to make and interpret measurements, use hand tools, test buoyancy, and discuss wind speeds. While developing their math skills, his students are “getting into navigation, figuring out distance, current, wind directions. I’m learning from it too…One of the hardest things when building something is how to manage building and instrumentation while making sure all students are involved,” Ratley notes.

Cassie Stymiest, a program manager with the Northeastern Regional Association of Coastal and Ocean Observing Systems (NERACOOS), has been working with Manning on the drifter program, conducting workshops for educators and compiling resources that she has posted online at http://neracoos.org/drifters. The site includes a map displaying the locations of drifters currently in the water, instructions for building surface drifters, and more. Stymiest says, “All the drifter data are used to validate our circulation models, which is essential to improving search-and-rescue operations, understanding red tides, and studying other oceanographic phenomena. There’s so much you can do with it.”

Crossing the Atlantic

While surface drifters like those launched by Swampscott students are moved by water currents, others are designed to use wind power as well. Barbara Nidzgorski, Young Scholars program coordinator at John Winthrop Middle School in Deep River, Connecticut, purchased a drifter boat from Educational Passages in 2012. Winthrop seventh and eighth graders decorated the 5’ boat and included information about their school and a flash drive with a recording of a performance by the school’s band and chorus in the Charger’s watertight chamber. The boat was launched in May of that year off the coast of South Carolina. After being driven back to shore by storms, the boat was relaunched by a SCUBA company. Since then, the Charger has traveled north to Newfoundland and across the Atlantic Ocean to Wales. It was launched once more by a ship out of England’s London Thamesport before traveling to Portugal and then to Guyana in South America.

Nidzgorski says the boat has been used in numerous classes, from science to math to art. “Every single area of education can be included [in a drifter program]: marine science, ocean science, math,…We had kids predicting where it was going to be. In the beginning, it was pinging six times a day; later, twice a day. There’s a lot of vocabulary; kids have written about it. The biggie is latitude and longitude.”

The program also has forged connections across the school, community, and the world. Local companies donated services and marine paint to help the Winthrop students prepare the boat for launch. A message on the boat instructing anyone finding it to take the vessel to a school has led to exchanges with students in Wales and Portugal. As the boat was refurbished before being released on its journey once again, students in those countries met with the adults who repaired the boat.

Nidzgorski is now working to get the Charger either shipped back to Connecticut or relaunched from Guyana. If relaunched, she hopes the boat will be able to complete a circuit of the Atlantic Ocean by arriving in Florida. “It’s 80% of the way around,” she proclaims proudly. Regulations in Guyana have prevented its relaunch so far, but Nidzgorski says the school has asked state officials to help find a way to get the boat headed home or back out to sea.

“So many cool things happen, every [boat’s adventure] is different. It’s pretty amazing…The investment you put in, you get so much more back,” she says. “This is the way our ancestors traveled: the current and the wind. That’s the way our initial explorers came across the ocean.”

Drifter Resources

For more information on drifters, educators can visit www.studentdrifters.orghttp://neracoos.org/drifters, and  www.educationalpassages.com, or e-mail Jim Manning at james.manning@noaa.gov.

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2015 issue of NSTA Reports, the member newspaper of the National Science Teachers Association. Each month, NSTA members receive NSTA Reports featuring news on science education, the association, and more. Not a member? Learn how NSTA can help you become the best science teacher you can be.

The mission of NSTA is to promote excellence and innovation in science teaching and learning for all.

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