Learning With the Student Drifter Program

By on May 20, 2019
NOAA drifter program Recovery of a surface drifter on the outer beach of Cape Cod after it had come across Mass Bay in the Spring of 2017 and washed up on the dunes. (Credit: James P. Manning)

The mission of the Student Drifter Program, initiated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and now administered by the Gulf of Maine Lobster Foundation (GOMLF), is “to establish scientific partnerships between schools around the region and engage students in activities and communication about ocean climate science.” NOAA oceanographer James P. Manning spoke with EM about the program and how it benefits students and the environment.

The drifters, typically made with an aluminum (or bamboo) frame and cloth sails, flow primarily underwater with a transmitter above the waterline to send data on its location via satellite every few hours. They stay active with battery power for several months. During that time, they can be tracked online. As the drifters send data back to students, they can record where the currents carry their instrument.

“It’s a fun program that involves a lot of people,” explains Mr. Manning. “Not only the people who deploy them but also the people who find them. We have a database now of hundreds of beach walkers that have found these drifters and connected with us, and oftentimes they get involved with the program and bring the drifter into their local schools to refurbish and redeploy.”

“The simplest model just gives its position, which in turn gives us a record of the current, the ocean flow,” continues Mr. Manning. “Given position every hour, we can calculate the speed of the ocean, which is needed for us to validate various numerical models.  These are like weather models of the ocean. You can think of the drifters as weather balloons in the oceanic atmosphere. Weather balloons help weathermen with their models of the winds, and these drifters are an underwater form of that.”

The students follow the track online using a website where they can see the path of their drifter.

“They can, depending on the level of the school, download the data, which is basically time, latitude, and longitude,” Mr. Manning describes. “This allows them to figure out the speed and try to predict, for example, where the drifter is going to go, and then compare those predictions to what ocean models predict. The models have a long way to go before they can predict the ocean currents more than a few days into the future”.

STEM education with drifters

The drifters are typically constructed in classrooms, mostly at the high school level, although any grade level from elementary school to post-graduate can handle the work.

“It takes them a few hours to put them together according to our instructions, kind of like making a kite,” states Mr. Manning. “The drifters are built mostly from materials the students find at the local hardware store. The only fancy thing is a little transmitter that we send them in the mail which they attach on top of the drifter. The satellite transmitter reports its position at a specified rate depending on how long we want the battery to last and how much money is available to pay the satellite fees.”

Students and educators deploy the drifters with the help of NOAA and members of the local seagoing community.

“When it’s time to deploy, the school usually takes the drifters out and gives them to local fishermen, any kind of mariner who’s going offshore,” comments Mr. Manning. “It’s usually not a problem finding a vessel to take it out to sea. Those mariners are just as interested as the students are in where things are going and following the track. The program itself is a collaboration between schools and the local fishermen.”

Depending on what the teams hope to measure, there are different drifters they might deploy.

“For example, we have the standard drifters that look like box kites,” Mr. Manning says. “This drifter stays just below the surface, with very little exposed to the wind, because you want to measure the water flow and not the wind. So the standard drifter is just an underwater unit with a transmitter above the sea surface. Then there’s the drogue drifter which is tethered down deep in the water. It’s got the long tether at a certain ocean level to measure flow other than at the sea surface.”

NOAA also works with Educational Passages, an organization that helps students deploy and track “miniboats” that are moved partially by the wind.

“The miniboat blows in the wind as much as it does with the current,” remarks Mr. Manning. “The advantage of this is that they go much faster, and they cross the ocean quicker. We put out about seventy of these from the New England coast that landed in Europe. They take at least several months and often multiple years to cross the ocean, and then wherever they land, they are brought into the local schools who often  Skype with the original local schools here in the US. That’s the fun part.”

Valuable data for multiple uses

Two different websites showcase these popular student programs: Studentdrifters.org focuses primarily on ocean drifters, and educationalpassages.org is linked to the miniboats.

“There’s been on the order of 140 or so schools that have been involved in building them, mostly around New England,” explains Mr. Manning. “We’ve put out close to 1,500 drifters over the years. It’s a fun project because after having built the thing, they’re connected to it, and they’re actually contributing to ocean observing systems. Our goal is to share these data with other researchers to help them validate their numerical models. That’s our main motivation: to get more data out there so that the people that are developing these sophisticated ocean and especially coastal shallow water models have data they can use to test and refine them.”

Sharing the data with other scientists helps students understand the value of the long-term fieldwork they are helping conduct.

“That’s the whole purpose of getting youth involved because we need more physical oceanographers and STEM career-driven students for our workforce,” adds Mr. Manning. “There are not too many US students entering this field. They all want to be marine biologists, or they want to study sharks and things like that, but there are not too many that are interested in the physics of the ocean.”

Without enough people studying the physics of the oceans, however, it isn’t possible to plan for things like climate change.

“It’s critical to have a low-cost method to be able to keep monitoring for decades because the very slow, subtle changes in ocean circulation are hard to detect unless you continue to put things out there,” states Mr. Manning. “We can’t rely totally on the models to make predictions.”

To get involved in the NOAA Student Drifter program, school representatives should visit the studentdrifters.org site, which directs them on how to get started.

“We try to find government grants and distribute them out to schools so they don’t have to come up with the funding themselves,” remarks Mr. Manning. “Most public schools can’t afford it, even though it’s pretty basic parts from a hardware store, by the time you buy the transmitter and pay the satellite fees, it’s close to $1,000 a unit.”

In the future, the NOAA team hopes to add more sensors to the student drifters.

“When we started out it was just latitude and longitude, but some of them, especially the miniboats, now have little microcomputer sensor packages that can measure other parameters,” comments Mr. Manning. “They can currently measure sea surface temperature, but we’ve also put out a few with oxygen and pH sensors, for example. So there’s lots of potential for the future when these sensors get more accurate.  Any school can put these sensor packages together cheaply, and learn more about computer science along the way.”

Manning and the Student Drifter team are also hoping to expand the program. Erin Pelletier and Cassie Stymiest, based at GOMLF in Kennebunk ME, are now conducting most of the program operations while Manning works on tracking and data analysis.

“We also work with one of the many regional associations for ocean observing systems, NERACOOS,” states Mr. Manning. “Around the country, there are 11 of these regional associations within NOAA. While we work primarily with NERACOOS because we are located in the Northeast, there are others that could implement the program in their region as well.”

Beyond that, Mr. Manning and the team are simply hoping to keep the Student Drifter program alive.

“I hope to keep it going,” affirms Mr. Manning. “I have two colleagues in Maine that I’m hoping will keep it going because I’ve only got a couple more years to go here before I retire. They’ve been a big help in the administration, but I just want to work with the data now. There’s so much data that I need to focus on that, while they can work with the schools and get the instruments out there collecting the valuable data we need.”

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