top of page
  • 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 ocean drifter in order to be successful. This need to redesign forces students to look for new ways to solve a problem, which is the ultimate critical thinking skill. This redesigning process can often be a point of frustration for students, but is ultimately, their greatest source of pride when addressed.

Designing and building the drifter models

Once students have had ample time to redesign and make the appropriate changes to their drifter prototype, each class spends time outside testing the prototype in a makeshift ocean environment. Large kiddie pools are filled with water and a pool pump is inserted into the pool to create a current. Seaweed and other ocean debris is added to the kiddie pool. Each pair of students places their drifter in the pool, calculates the average speed of their drifter, proves the buoyancy of their drifter, and then attempts to have their drifter avoid the obstacles in the pool. Students take an immense amount of pride in watching their drifter successfully avoid obstacles.

Testing models for buoyancy

The strongest drifter prototypes from each science class are later selected by the teachers using the scoring guides. This process provides sixteen eighth grade students with the opportunity to build real ocean drifters under the guidance of their pre-engineering teacher. This second building opportunity allows students to collaborate with one another and bring the strongest elements of their prototype design to the real design of an ocean drifter.

A few weeks after building, two real ocean drifters are deployed in the Gulf of Maine with canvas flags proudly displaying, “RAN Middle School”. In year’s past, students have even been able to board a large boat during the school day and place the drifter that they built in the ocean water.

Getting ready to launch from the Ninth Waive

Getting ready to launch from the Ninth Waive

It may seem like our students’ work with ocean drifters would come to a natural conclusion once the drifters are placed in the ocean. However, this unloading of the ocean drifters actually triggers a whole other area of focus. Students are now able to track the ocean drifters via the Internet. We spend class time analyzing the data, identifying patterns amongst the drifters, and discussing why the drifters may be moving in those patterns. This aspect of the unit emphasizes the real-world connection and further highlights a strong mathematics connection.

While there are numerous benefits to this drifters unit, three things stand out as the most significant from the educator’s point of view. First, student engagement during this unit is at an unprecedented high. Off-topic conversations and cuing up for bathroom passes is virtually non-existent. Students do not want to be off-topic because they genuinely want to be successful and are interested. Perhaps most notably, all learners are engaged during this time, even the learners who typically withdraw from group work or struggle on assignments. This hands-on nature of this assignment combined with the real-world challenge draws in all learners and levels the playing field in a way that most other assignments do not.

Secondly, this unit allows students to see themselves as active members of the community. At an age when so many things appear to be out of their control, it is important for teenagers to understand that there are aspects of this world that they can dramatically influence now. Students are encouraged to think deeply about their local ocean community and to see themselves not merely as victims of circumstance, but as active citizens who are capable of better understanding their environment and subsequently promoting change.

Finally, as educators, this unit enables us to find a meaningful way to incorporate technology and engineering standards into our science curriculum. Incorporating technology education standards into the science curriculum is an increasing concern based not only on the structure of the Massachusetts Next Generation Science Standards, which greatly increases the depth and breadth of technology engineering in the middle school classroom, but also as an accurate reflection of the world in which we live. The amount of technological understanding that our students will need is not going to decrease in this society. Thus, it is imperative that our sience curriculum prepares students to understand how technology can be used to better understand and to potentially solve real-world problems. We strongly believe that our ocean drifter unit does exactly that.


Kristen Vicente

Kristen Vicente is an eighth grade science teacher at the Rupert A. Nock Middle School. She has taught middle school science for the past eleven years. She holds a master’s degree in government with a concentration in Educational Policy Making and is passionate about making learning accessible to all students. A major focus of her curriculum development has involved project-based learning.

Mary Kate Allan

Mary Kate Allan is a twenty-one-year veteran science teacher who has been teaching at the Rupert A. Nock Middle School for the past seventeen years. Science has been her passion since she herself was in middle school. She most enjoys watching her students create and problem solve. While not at school she spends time with her two children and their many various activities.

Brad Balkus

A twenty-year veteran of the Newburyport Public Schools, Brad has experience as a science and Engineering/Technology teacher. Hands-on problem solving is at the core of his teaching philosophy as he integrates CAD, 3D printing, and a fabrication lab into middle school curriculum projects.

167 views0 comments
bottom of page