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Go With the Flow: Bethlehem Elementary School’s Watershed Unit

Cross-disciplinary project-based learning opportunities grounded in the real-world experiences of the North Country challenge students to direct their own learning with relevant and local problems. An excellent example is our multi-year “watershed studies” in the 4th and 5th grades. As part of the unit of study, students are challenged to create ARC GIS maps that predict water flow within the watershed, work with Trout Unlimited to collect, categorize, and analyze trash collected along the Connecticut River, host a public watershed informational evening, and raise Brook Trout in the classroom to release into the Ammonoosuc River. Students also experiment with stream tables to investigate erosion control and then plan and test culvert designs to minimize erosion.

As a culminating event, the students design and create a GPS “drifter” to be released in the Gulf of Maine in June. The students design and construct the drifter out of materials provided by the Gulf of Maine Institute. Students not only get to build their drifter, but also they get to experience the open ocean on The Ninth Wave, a sailing catamaran out of Newburyport, MA.

Figures 1 & 2: Students tested and retested various ideas in a water tank

This drifter is utilized by the Gulf of Maine Institute to track the ocean current changes in the gulf created by temperature changes. These data are used as a part of a larger investigation into the impact on sea turtles and other marine life.

Figure 3: Aboard the Ninth Waive

Students, Donald Hilliard and Owen Snow, created the following script for an interview they are making using green screen technology.

Donald: Hi there. We’re reporters from News 03574 and are here to tell you about a drifter that was launched by the 4th grade at Bethlehem Elementary School last year. A drifter is an object that travels through ocean currents and has a GPS tracking device on it.

Owen: The students launched the drifter because The Gulf of Maine Institute was concerned that the temperatures in The Gulf of Maine were rising. Ocean creatures rely on temperature to know when to migrate such as sea turtles.

Figure 4: Bethlehem Elementary Students with the completed drifter.

Donald: The class drove down from Bethlehem, NH to Newburyport, MA. where they boarded a catamaran sailboat called the Ninth Wave. They sailed 21 miles out into the Gulf of Maine where they released the drifter.

Figure 5: The drifter had to be rebuilt upon arrival in Newburyport.

Owen: After the drifter was released it started to go southeast for about 100 miles. Then it went about 200 more miles right to the edge of the continental shelf.

Donald: Well I guess it did not want to fall off of the continental shelf. So, it went northeast for about another 100 miles. Then it took a left turn to go west for another 100 miles.

Owen: The drifter swirled around for about twenty miles going northeast. Next, it swirled around a little more going northwest.

Donald: Then, the drifter went northeast for another 100 miles. After that, it drifted northwest for fifty miles.

Owen: About 40 miles off of the coast of Nova Scotia the drifter went around in circles for about 75 miles not making a lot of forward progress.

Donald: Next, the drifter continued flowing northwest for about 50-75 miles.

Owen: About 40 miles off the coast of Sandford, Nova Scotia, the drifter zig-zagged for about 150 miles.

Donald: The drifter spun around for about 250 miles in one spot until it stopped swirling and made a 700-1000 mile loop.

Owen: It washed up on the beach near Church Point, Nova Scotia and broke apart.

Editors note: The following is an anonymous Bethlehem Elementary School fourth grader’s unedited account of the drifters journey from creation to rescue.

Gomi’s Adventure

I’m Alive and my name is Gomi was the first thing I thought when my GPS turned on in the classroom. I think my creators were the fourth graders that were stretching canvas sails on my legs and arms. I heard the students talking about taking me to the ocean. Road Trip!! Before I knew it I was in the back of a van bouncing down the road. Yippy! I thought.

Oh, it was a bumpy ride. Eww!? What did Donald have for lunch? Tacos? That was green bean casserole. I was thinking I needed a bath when the fourth graders took me out of the van and loaded me on a huge sailboat.

The ride was rough and I was going up and down and up and down. I saw Donald’s green bean casserole for a second time. After a long and bumpy ride I couldn’t believe it the fourth graders threw me overboard into the deep cold ocean.

I think I swallowed some seaweed and seawater. They did something right because while my body was under the waves my head was in the air!. I wanted to yell, “ Wait don’t leave me, I want to go home!” I floated for a long time around and around in the current. I thought I was going the right direction , but noticed the ocean drop off below me. I think I even saw a giant shark! He looked hungry for lunch. AAAAAHHH!. I turned around for the opposite direction.

After a long journey I ended up near a rocky shore and an island. The current kept me from landing anywhere. There were pretty whales all around me. Blowing water into the sky. After spending countless days with the Whales the current took me around the side of the rocky island. I was really feeling tired. My sails had been destroyed by over 6000 kilometers at sea. I was barely functioning and forgot what it was like to be on land.

Several months after entering the sea on a cold windy day in November I saw land again. Yey!! This time I was able to make it to a beach. The waves broke my head off and I thought it was the end. Finally a person, not a fourth grader, found me. I was saved. This is Gomi signing out until next time.

Dr. Dan Earle GOMI board member and Nova Scotia resident to the rescue.


Bryan has been teaching for 17 years in a variety of roles. Bryan started with the Trout in the Classroom program ten years ago as a way to engage students with emotional and behavioral disorders. Students learned how fragile life can be and the importance of habitat and environmental stewardship.

Today he teaches fourth grade in Bethlehem, NH. Water Science has become a year-long program connected to all areas of the curriculum, starting with hosting a “source to sea” cleanup where we explore and clean the local watershed. Students eventually design and construct a drifter to release into the Gulf of Maine through the help of GOMI.

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