• Kristen Vicente, Mary Kate Allan, Brad Balkus

Ocean Drifters: Bringing Technology Engineering into the Science Classroom

October 31, 2017 - If you walked into an eighth grade science classroom at the Rupert A. Nock Middle School this Halloween day, you may have been surprised to see twenty to twenty-five students fully engaged in a hands-on building project and discussing prototype design. You may have wandered around the room looking to find that one renegade student plotting out their trick- or -treat route or informing their peers about who gives out the full-size candy bars on their street. However, this off-topic student would have been hard to find during the ocean drifter unit.

As you walked around the room, you found that some students were measuring and hopefully re-measuring wooden dowels and canvas pieces, other students were adjusting their budget and counting their bright yellow money, some students were leaving the room to travel to the pre-engineering room for materials and advice, and finally other students who were simply grappling with marine glue.

Since the 2014 - 2015 school year, we have taught a curriculum unit around ocean drifters as a collaborative process between the eighth grade science teachers and the middle school’s pre-engineering teacher. The three of us participated in a STEM certification course together at Parametric Technology Corporation that did not require us to incorporate community-based education, but rather, asked us to create real-world problems for our students to solve. We were incredibly pleased to create a unit that combined both community-based education and a real-world problem that directly affects our coastal community. In fact, upon further exploration, the two seemed to flow together seamlessly.

The ocean drifter unit is spread out over a two- to three-week period. In order to introduce the unit, guests from the Gulf of Maine Institute as well as previous students who have designed and built ocean drifters present some introductory information to the eighth grade students. These presentations set the tone for the work that students will complete and let them see the real world implications of this project. On a basic level, these presentations also review major issues currently found in the Gulf of Maine and the importance of data collection in our oceans.

After these presentations, students are asked to work in a small group on concept development. Before students are given any type of design parameters, they are asked to think of creative ways to collect data in order to find out more about the issues found in the Gulf of Maine. This stage emphasizes imaginative thinking as students are encouraged to ignore any logistical concerns they may have.

Once students share their “out of the box” ideas, they are assigned partners and given the guidelines for their ocean drifter prototypes. Students are informed that the pair who builds the strongest prototype from each class, as determined by the provided scoring guide, will have the opportunity to build an actual ocean drifter that will be launched in the Gulf of Maine. Students become highly motivated by both the competitive nature of this task and its real world application.

During the next two class periods, students spend the majority of their time designing their ocean drifter prototypes, developing a detailed budget, and shopping at the makeshift drifter prototype store set up in the classroom. Each pair of students is given $100 in bills that resemble monopoly money and every item students may want to purchase to build their prototypes is given a dollar value. For example, an 8 x 11 piece of canvas is $25, while a styrofoam ball is only $10.

Designing and building the drifter models

At this point in the unit, things get messy in the best possible way. Students begin the building, testing, and redesigning process. Students have access to a variety of building materials, including drills, dremels, saws, and marine glue. Students also have access to a large fish tank in the classroom so that they can test the buoyancy of their ocean drifter throughout the building process. The most fascinating part about this process and the place where arguably the most learning takes place occurs when almost all students realize that they need to redesign one or many components of their