buoy Jessica Johnson and Aja Lim hold up the NOAA press release for the Adopt a Drifter contest at Montalvo Elementary School in Ventura.

Local students track ocean buoy

Drifter yields valuable scientific information

By David Percival 05/17/2012

The Pacific Ocean is a massive body of water that covers one-third of the Earth’s surface.  It’s also the temporary classroom for a group of fourth graders in Ventura.

Students from Montalvo Elementary School are participating in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Adopt a Drifter Program that currently has them tracking a 44-pound buoy across the sea after it was released along the Santa Barbara coast a few weeks ago. The buoy records and sends out useful climate information to satellites that the students can then study and interpret through a website.

“[The students] will be able to predict and draw conclusions based on the data obtained after reviewing the buoy’s information,” said Jose Chicote, the fourth-grade teacher at Montalvo Elementary School whose class is involved in the study, “not to mention the new scientific terminology and math skills involved with this project.”

New science and math skills include the opportunity to learn firsthand about ocean temperatures.

“Some days after lunch, we’ll go onto the website and look at it,” said Jessica Johnson, a fourth-grade student participating in the study. “There are these color dots and a scale, and the scale is colors. If you look on the buoy and there is a dot and it’s red, that means the temperature right there was that hot or cold.”

The buoy wouldn’t be complete without a unique five-digit name.

“[Ours is] 37418,” said Johnson. “It’s the number of our buoy so when we go onto the website we can see where it has gone, how far it is, and what it’s been tracking.”

In addition to acquiring information on ocean temperatures, ocean-drifting buoys can help answer questions relating to the habits of marine wildlife.

“In some cases, marine species may move where the ocean currents take them,” said Diane Stanitski of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Program Office. “So we’re using some of the drifters to help us understand more about the boundaries of water of differing temperatures.”

Chicote’s students go a step further by recognizing the integral role of certain marine organisms in the food chain process and how changing ocean temperatures and acidity levels could throw everything off balance.

Sea snails are a species of special concern for the students.

“Scientists want to figure out [which] areas have the most ocean acidification,” said Aja Lim, another fourth-grade student involved with the program. “[It] is important because we want to keep the snails and all the animals with shells alive. If there is too much acidification, then their shells will crumble and it won’t work out in the food chain.”

A unique component of the Adopt a Drifter Program is that students can follow buoy releases in other parts of the world and come together internationally, a fact not lost on Shauna Bingham, outreach coordinator for the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary.

“[Students] will be able to observe buoys released around the world ocean and connect other observation patterns to the broader system of ocean currents and circulation,” said Bingham.

For the kids at Montalvo Elementary, this means connecting with a school more than 5,000 miles away.

“The Adopt a [Drifter] Program is partnering with the International Preparatory School in Santiago de Chile, Chile,” said Chicote. “I believe this is a great opportunity for elementary school students to have a broader knowledge about communication between other students in different parts of the globe.”

The students had a chance to sign their names on the buoy before it slipped into the Pacific.

“We have connections with kids in Chile, and when [the buoy] goes over to Chile, they get to see our names,” said Lim. “I feel so proud that our school can do all these cool things because this is something important.”

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