Unique drifter buoy project to teach middle school students about ocean currents
SOUTH KINGSTOWN – In the midst of the pandemic, offering hands-on, interactive lessons can be difficult, but a pair of science teachers at Curtis Corner Middle School have created a project that’s sure to excite.
Rather than just reading about ocean tides and currents, eighth graders will be tracking a student drifter buoy in real time as it makes its way across the Atlantic Ocean. The project came to life thanks to science teachers Brenda Dillmann and Valerie Light, who in 2019, participated in the Rhode Island Teachers at Sea Program.
Their experiences at sea are now finding their way into the classroom, and to the best of Dillmann’s knowledge, Curtis Corner will be the first school in Rhode Island to launch such a project.
“It’s all about trying to get the kids invested, and trying to get them to do real science with real data that they’re collecting,” Dillmann said.
Recently, eighth grade science students have been learning about surface and deep water currents, as well as the gulf stream, and the role it plays in climate.
Thanks to the help of Maryann Scholl, a marine research associate in the office of marine programs at the University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography, the Curtis Corner drifter buoy will be hitting the gulf stream today. The Endeavor is dropping the drifter buoy off Cape Hatteras in North Carolina, where the gulf stream comes particularly close to the shore.
“You basically just turn it loose in the ocean with a transmitter, and then students can track it and get information on ocean currents,” Dillmann explained. “The data can be put into all sorts of things.”
This data can be incorporated into lesson plans, or be applied to practical applications, like asking students to track dispersal from a potential oil spill.
“We’ll probably end up tracking it for a year, if all goes well,” she said, and the buoy doesn’t get damaged or destroyed during that window of time.
It’s something that can be passed down to the next incoming class of eighth graders at Curtis Corner Middle School, and shared with teachers at the high school, where there’s an oceanography class.
This project isn’t something Dillmann and Light would have thought to incorporate into their lessons, had it not been for their time on the Endeavor. The Rhode Island Teacher at Sea Grant, which is run and organized by Scholl, is designed to establish sustainable partnerships between ocean scientists, researchers and educators who live and teach in Rhode Island.
The annual program, which has been put on hiatus because of the pandemic, is open to educators throughout the state from all disciplines. Dillmann and Light decided to apply together, and to their excitement, were accepted into the program together.
Now, with the help of various individuals and organizations, they’ll be bringing some of their experience to life for students. The student drifter buoy, which was purchased from the Gulf of Maine Lobster Foundation, was funded through the PTO and a grant from the Westerly Credit Union.
According to Dillmann, the Gulf of Maine Lobster Foundation supplies these buoys and works in concert with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to set up the tracking. Individuals from both agencies have been incredibly helpful and supportive with any questions the teaching pair had in regards to getting the buoy built and deployed.
When Dillmann was having issues with the transmitter earlier this week, Executive Director Erin Pelletier of the Gulf of Maine Lobster Foundation had even offered to get in her car and drive to Rhode Island with a new one. Thankfully, the issue was resolved without requiring a road trip, but Dillmann said many people, like Pelletier, have been eager to make this unique opportunity possible.
During a phone interview on Wednesday evening, the night before the drifter buoy was meant to be dropped off to the Research Vessel Endeavor, Dillmann said it was fully constructed and sitting in the middle of her living room – measuring about 4 feet tall and 4 feet wide.
The students were able to help construct and assemble part of the buoy, but because of social distancing and sanitization requirements, they weren’t able to assemble the buoy start to finish.
“They were able to help me do a little bit of the constriction, but not as much as I would have liked,” Dillmann said. “They helped me put grommets on the sails and my pod helped glue a couple of the sails for me, and they all got to write their names on them – at least the kids who are in person.”
Much of the assembly fell on Dillmann’s shoulders, which is understandable given the constraints, but this was also her first time assembling a drifter buoy too, she was facing a learning curve too. Dillmann had a lot of help too, though, she said, from David Caito, of Charles Street Auto and Boat Top in North Providence, who helped her reinforced the seams, to the salesmen at Jerry’s Hardware who spent 45 minutes helping her pick out about $5 worth of hardware, and countless others who lent a hand or funding to make this happen.
“Who knew it would take a village to launch a simple drifter buoy?”