Ocean Drifters Designed by High School Students Could Help UM Researchers

Designed by students at MAST Academy High School, 13 ocean drifters in a variety of shapes and sizes could help UM researchers learn how oil spilled at sea reaches our shores.

By Robert C. Jones Jr.
UM News

MIAMI, Fla. (October 14, 2013) — Standing waist deep in the waters of Biscayne Bay, a shirtless Franco Baudino tossed the box-shaped device into the waves, then watched as it listed—a design flaw he knew would have to be corrected.

Only a few feet away, a small group of Baudino’s classmates took turns hurling their own vessels into the water, from a cone-shaped contraption with fins to a gadget that looked more like a spaceship than watercraft.

The youngsters wanted to know if the small devices were buoyant and could stand up to breaking waves. For the most part, they performed quite well.

And so went the initial testing phase on October 7 for 13 ocean drifters designed and built by students at MAST Academy High School in Key Biscayne.

A more important mission awaits those drifters that aced the test. Scientists at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, which is located just across the Rickenbacker Causeway from MAST Academy, will equip the best drifters with GPS tracking software and deploy them, along with 200 of their own, about a kilometer off the coast of Destin, Florida, using the data they transmit to determine the path of spilled oil.

“What we want to understand is how oil ends up on the beach, and that starts with having oil—in this case, simulated with drifters—outside the surfzone,” explains Ad Reniers, an associate professor of applied marine physics who is the lead investigator of a new study called SCOPE (Surfzone Coastal Oil Pathways Experiment).

The experiment isn’t set to get under way until December, giving the MAST Academy students enough time to troubleshoot their drifters and improve on design flaws.

Baudino, a 15-year-old tenth grader, said he and his teammates believe the problem that caused their drifter to list instead of remaining upright in the water may lie with the sand-filled box that serves as ballast.

“We’re theorizing that a better constructed box, probably with rods running through it, might solve the problem,” said Baudino.

He is one of 60 students in the Engineering II and III classes taught by Melissa Fernandez, who was approached by UM scientists with the idea of having some of her pupils design and construct drifters for their SCOPE project.

“They [the students] realize this project has a purpose,” said Fernandez. “They’re not just building something for themselves but for a much larger community. And that is incredibly motivating for a high school student.”

Students in Leo Jimenez’s Marine Research I class at South Broward High School are also participating in the SCOPE study. They hope to try out their own drifters this week, using a pool or beach location for the testing.

Jimenez said the project comes at an ideal time for his ninth graders because the students recently began studying methods employed by scientists to study the world’s oceans. “Now, they’ll get to do it themselves,” he said.

SCOPE is part of the Consortium for Advanced Research on Transport of Hydrocarbon in the Environment, or CARTHE. Led by Tamay Özgökmen, a professor of meteorology and physical oceanography at Rosenstiel, the initiative is charged with predicting the fate of oil released into the environment to help inform and guide response teams.

Last year CARTHE investigators conducted the largest upper-ocean dispersion experiment ever done, deploying some 300 drifters on top of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill site and tracking their movements.

“We learned how the currents impacted material on the surface of the ocean,” said Özgökmen.

The SCOPE study, which will last for three weeks, will help investigators learn oil dispersion processes along the beach, Özgökmen said.

MAST Academy students, like the SCOPE investigators, will be able to track the drifters in real time.

“And that’s pretty cool,” said Baudino.

Robert C. Jones Jr. can be reached at 305-284-1615.

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Two MAST Academy students make minor adjustments to their ocean drifter before deploying it in the waters of Biscayne Bay. The best drifters will be used by UM researchers to help determine how spilled oil reaches our shores.

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