With schools located just blocks away from the Atlantic Ocean, students from the Long Beach Island Consolidated School District are immersed in studies of that body of water. The children in the pre-K to grade 6 district are learning about the ocean’s role in regulating Earth’s systems through cutting-edge research programs pairing students with scientists.

Students “adopt” and track high-tech data-collecting devices that travel in the ocean and follow the journey of these devices through free, web-based resources in the classroom. With data-centered activities to investigate earth science concepts, students use engaging interactive maps and visualizations provided by these programs, while applying strategies and approaches similar to scientists. This area of science can often be difficult to teach, however, these programs provide a more concrete method for getting teachers and all students involved in learning about abstract, complex topics in a fun, tangible way.

Adopt a Float Program with Autonomous Robotic Technology The Long Beach Island Grade School, with inspiration and collaboration from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) and Stockton University, began integrating several of these collaborative projects. The goal was to connect students with scientists, and enhance STEM skills while generating interest in ocean and environmental processes.

One such program, the “Adopt a Float Program,” is the outreach component of the Global Ocean Biogeochemistry Array, a worldwide network of autonomous, robotic devices which scientists use to continuously monitor the health of the ocean from the surface down to 1,000 meters. With sensors affixed to these floats, information about the ocean such as temperature and salinity can be collected from the surrounding water, and then accessed remotely online.   

Through the “Adopt a Float Program,” schools can apply to symbolically adopt these robotic floats as part of a free initiative that connects students with scientists to learn about the ocean’s vital role in Earth’s climate. Data from these floats is freely and easily accessible as part of the adoption process, and can be used to support a variety of science practices and concepts with students from elementary ages through high school and beyond.

Once schools apply for the program, Dr. Bob Key, a research oceanographer at Princeton University, will provide virtual presentations upon request to discuss the program and research focus as well as the technology involved.

On Dec. 15, 2017, the autonomous float, “Sandy,” adopted and named by the Long Beach Island Grade School sixth-grade students, was launched in the Southern Ocean (the seas surrounding Antarctica), and has been transmitting data continuously since its deployment three years ago.

These students thoroughly enjoy being able to participate in a large-scale scientific research program, and follow the journey of a robotic device in this distant and remote part of the ocean. Accessing and using the information collected by the float occurs through a free, user-friendly website that supports a wide range of practices from basic graphing to more complex data analysis. By simply selecting any of the adopted floats, students can quickly plot data for selected variables during specific time intervals. Fun, interactive maps, and visualizations of the floats’ trajectories are also available which enable students to easily identify and analyze patterns in ocean currents. These patterns can then be used to analyze the locations of the floats and see relationships between other variables such as chlorophyll and oxygen or nitrogen. Finally, students can also use this data to explain the connection between photosynthesis and the ocean’s role in the carbon cycle, and relate this to local community issues. If interested in participating in this program, go to the website.

Student Drifter Educational Program with Satellite Tracking Technology Another collaborative research program available for schools is the “Student Drifters Educational Program.”

This is a national program developed by NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) scientists in 2004, which is designed to have students build and deploy an ocean drifter, a device that uses satellite tracking technology to follow the movement of surface currents in the Atlantic Ocean. Since 2010, more than 1,000 drifters have been built and deployed by students from 50 schools in the United States. Ocean drifters are low-cost but effective data-collecting tools that students can build and deploy in the ocean for analyzing data and designing investigations of ocean processes. The drifters are approximately four feet tall, consisting of canvas sails supported by an aluminum frame with buoys to prevent sinking, and have a GPS unit mounted on the top. Traveling near the surface of the ocean, these scientific devices are like high-tech plankton, moving and flowing with the ocean currents, while recording and transmitting their positions via satellite.

This data can then be accessed by students back in the classroom to track their drifter’s position over time, and used to monitor, analyze, and identify ocean circulation patterns.  Since the data is provided through a freely available website, students can monitor the drifter’s movements from home and teachers can also utilize the content during remote instruction.

With the help of parents, Stockton University professors, and other community members, students at the Long Beach Island Grade School have built and deployed two drifters, one in 2015 and one in 2018. Each time, the students eagerly anticipated tracking their drifter, and were amazed to see how far it traveled. In 2018, Stockton University also launched a drifter at the same time, and both tracks were monitored by students of all ages from elementary to college classes. It was pretty amazing that all drifters traveled in the Gulf Stream and made it almost halfway across the Atlantic Ocean.

Using these devices, students have been able to integrate the data collected to explore science concepts centered on oceanography. For example, by plotting the drifter’s tracks using latitude and longitude coordinates, students can use scientific computer models of ocean currents to predict the future trajectory of the drifter. Students also can use information produced from drifters deployed by other schools to analyze and compare ocean circulation patterns in different parts of the ocean. Using this data, students can also formulate scientific questions about ocean currents, and research causes and effects of currents as well as connections to climate.

Other investigations can include the use of Polar ICE data stories which provide engaging, interactive lessons through the use of real data collected by scientists in Antarctica. Data stories specific to ocean circulation are available and allow students to easily investigate the effect of tides and other ocean changes on biological factors such as penguin populations.   

Other New Jersey schools have been involved in this program in the past and more may be involved in the future since scientists are now working closely with oceanographers at Rutgers University and the University of Delaware through the Mid-Atlantic Regional Association Coastal Ocean Observing System (MARACOOS), a regional partnership of scientific organizations that monitor the ocean.

Using student-built drifters offers multiple opportunities to integrate real-world oceanographic studies in the sixth-grade school classroom through a nationally-developed science project, and enables students to gain insight into the complex nature of the scientific process. Projects using the drifter data can be coordinated and shared between grade levels of students, and can also be used to develop and strengthen community partnerships through university student mentors or community based projects. If interested in becoming part of this ongoing project contact Erin Pelletier at the Gulf of Maine Lobster Foundation at erin@gomlf.org.

Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) Technology The Sea Perch Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) Educational Program, an underwater robotics program which is also integrated at the Long Beach Island Grade School, involves students building a low-cost aquatic robot from a kit as part of a supplemental STEM program designed to support studies of the ocean, and inspire careers in marine technology and engineering. As participants in this program, students are introduced to basic engineering and science concepts through building a remotely operated vehicle. The building process involves the application of following manual instructions, soldering, engineering, teamwork, and critical thinking skills as students work collaboratively toward constructing a robotic underwater vehicle. Once the ROVs are built, students can participate in community, regional and national events designed to showcase and demonstrate their engineering skills, as they maneuver their vehicles through obstacles while performing specialized underwater tasks that mimic those performed with robotic vehicles used for actual scientific research. If interested, please visit the website for more information.

A curated list of additional curriculum resources centered on ocean science and authentic data is organized by activity type in the table below. Through the opportunities presented here, school leaders can expect to find meaningful resources to incorporate into their science curriculum. Each of these resources has a way of being integrated to complement the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), as well as other content areas such as language arts, social studies and math. Collectively, these resources foster a wide range of skills critical to the practices required by the NGSS, and essential for helping students make sense of earth’s processes.

Resources and Extensions for Integrating Ocean Data in the Classroom
Using Data from Adopt a Float and Student Drifter Project  
Activity Resource 
Adopt a Float  

  • Explore data collect by autonomous floats 

AdoptAFloatVIZ Version 6.0  

Student Drifters Project 

  • Plot drifter’s tracks 
  • Measure distance and calculate velocity of student deployed drifter 

Long Beach Island School 2015 drifter deployment (see <a href=’http://nefsc.noaa.gov/drifter’>here</a> for more info)  


Interpret drifter tracks, and predict and analyze with real-time ocean currents map MARACOOS: MARACOOS Assets Explorer  
Monitor and identify ocean currents with sea surface temperature MARACOOS MARACOOS OceansMap – Catalog 
Plot drifter track on a globe to investigate gyres and circulation patterns Investigating Surface Currents around the Globe Authored by Ryan Glaubke, Graduate Student at Old Dominion 
Plot movements of autonomous floats in Southern Ocean and compare locations to chlorophyll and oxygen data collected Float like a buoy, sing like a cetacean | MBARI  
Track drifters with real-time data by plotting latitude and longitude coordinates Student Driftershttp://studentdrifters.org/lesson_plans/Grades_5-8.pdf   
Additional Instructional Resources to Support Earth Science Concepts 
Global ocean circulation https://whyy.pbslearningmedia.org/resource/nves.sci.earth.oceancirc/global-ocean-circulation/ 
Investigate effect of ocean currents on penguin foraging behaviors What drives patterns in ocean change? 

Polar Data Stories  

Investigate ocean circulation with NASA story maps My NASA Data  
Manipulate data and create visualizations  Exploring the Ocean Surface with Data from the Global Drifter Program  

In the Long Beach Island Consolidated School District, Cathy McBride is a science teacher, and Dr. Peter Kopack is the superintendent.