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Drifting Towards Community-based Stewardship

In my role as GOMI Science Director, I work with students and teachers across the Gulf of Maine to help them design, build, launch, and track student-built ocean drifters. Schools are increasingly concerned about connecting with their communities as part of their curriculum, and they want to identify community issues in which students may participate. Student engagement in a drifter project allows them to become active citizens. They can see opportunities to play a role in helping contribute to solutions for local problems.

While most students can list some local areas of concern, they often have difficulty connecting their ideas to a larger regional view. With students scattered across three states and two provinces, we ask them to focus and work in their local area while being mindful of other GOMI projects. Our mantra to all is to "act locally but think bio-regionally."

Two programs reporting elsewhere in this journal are useful to illustrate this expanded awareness of "place." Bryan Smith and Brooke Campbell in Bethlehem New Hampshire call their 4th and 5th grade watershed studies "cross-disciplinary project-based learning." Their watershed is local and subject to the real world experiences of how the community engages with it. They study how erosion impacts their waters with site observations and classroom activities with a home-built "watershed." They observe how careless dumping and polluted runoff from impermeable surfaces reduces water quality. They work with New Hampshire Fish and Game to learn about the living creatures of the river and impacts on their requirements for life. They raise trout hatchlings for release into their waters, knowing the community must help insure their success by joining in to increase river health. They have produced very informative watershed education videos and shared them with the community. And it just so happens that the little stream in the southwest corner of their town flows into Franconia Notch and the larger Pemigewasset (Pemi) Watershed.

In joining with the GOMI Learning to Steward the Gulf (L2SG) project, the students were able to expand their awareness of place to a larger area subjected to the same stressors, and perhaps more. Far removed from the ocean, many of the students had never visited it, much less realized that their watershed was connected to it. A NOAA ocean drifter presentation in their classroom helped them learn that the Pemi wasn't the end point for their stream: their water also flows through the Merrimack River Watershed and on to the Gulf of Maine. And, in a more hands-on approach, the students were able to build their own drifter.

In this example, a community-based stewardship project of several square miles was connected to a larger watershed of over 5000 square miles. The Bethlehem students sat at the top of the watershed, but they were soon to learn from a group that sat at the bottom with a much different perspective. When they actually went to the sea to launch their drifter, they expanded their horizon further to the Atlantic Ocean.

Meanwhile, at the mouth of the Merrimack River, students in Newburyport, Massachusetts learn about all the varied ecosystems of their community. They explore and experience them by foot, bicycle, dory and kayak. They participate in a Mass Audubon research study of the salt marsh with over 18 years of data collected. Through all this, their sense of "place" can be as limited as that of the Bethlehem kids. They generally didn't know any more about the mountains than the other students did about the ocean. As 8th graders, they are asked to think more deeply about the ocean environment. They now know that what happens upstream also happens downstream, for example, the seemingly endless supply of plastic discs released by a New Hampshire sewage treatment plant a few years ago, or the chocolate brown color of the river staining the ocean for miles after floodwaters cause combined sewer overflows (CSOs). They wonder about the lack of fishing boats, and how we track "red tide" or cold-stunned sea turtles.

In their drifter design unit, they are asked to creatively think about ways to collect data. Although many are fanciful, others are more practical, and they are pleased to find out that some are already in place. After they build and launch their own drifter, they are provided with links to their own and other drifter tracks by Jim Manning at NOAA. These tracks can be followed by computer at school or, more readily, on their own phone. In class, they analyze data, try to identify patterns, and imagine their drifter as an upside down sailboat marking a location in the Gulf and beyond for that date and time. These data are then used by ocean modelers to validate simulations of the currents in the Gulf of Maine. Each reported position gives us more information and helps us answer questions, such as: what happens to an object drifting in the water; where does it travel; where does it end up; and how long does it take it to get there? Students engage these questions and learn more about this place, the Gulf of Maine, each time they log on to their tracks.

Hence, we see that two schools at opposite ends of a large watershed are studying a larger more complex place, the Gulf of Maine. Both schools have contributed valuable data to the knowledge of how currents move in the Gulf of Maine. Both have seen their drifters explore Massachusetts Bay, the continental shelf, the offshore seamounts, and the deep ocean basin. Their drifters have traveled up and down the Gulf of Maine, visiting all the political jurisdictions of the Gulf and the length and breadth of the Bay of Fundy. Several drifters have been recovered and their parts recycled. Students have worked with new and unusual materials in their designs, such as mushroom material on drogues and biodegradable protective cases on surface drifters. They have understood how the technology is used, have seen student-built classroom projects collect data all the way across the Atlantic, and have learned a lot more about a place called the Gulf of Maine - the place we all call home.


John Halloran is the Director of Science for GOMI and a member of the GOMI Guide Team. John’s interests focus on the ocean environment where he pursues educational adventure travel, research, and recreation by sail, paddle, and scuba.John is the founder and director of Adventure Learning, Newburyport, MA, which has been involved with educational outreach in area schools and recreational programs for teens and adults since 1980. A long-time educator, John was at the forefront of the experiential education movement in the U.S.For 36 years, he taught natural science in the Newburyport Public Schools. John has special interest and expertise in teacher training and standards for learning in math and science. His role has included direct teaching, teacher training, program development, grant writing, and developing partnerships with professionals in the field.

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