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Drifting Towards Knowledge

The ocean surface “turtle drifter” project provides our middle school students with an opportunity to participate in an important scientific research project led by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Engaging in "real world" research to collect data is both challenging and meaningful. 


Students began their work on building the drifter by seeking to understand the needs of the end user (in this case, NOAA) and reviewing the parameters that would ensure their design would be successful.

The drifter needs to float, remain in salt water for a long period of time without rotting or falling apart, and cause no harm to the environment or any sea creatures. Students built the drifter using materials that would align with these criteria. They learned that cedar would be the best wood choice because it’s light enough to float and doesn’t rot. For added protection, they coated the wood with marine varnish. Recognizing that ordinary screws would corrode in salt water, they used stainless steel screws in the assembly. The foam used to add buoyancy is non-toxic landscape foam that is approved as safe to use in fishponds. The GPS unit has a solar cell that charges the battery unit.

Wellan’s 2023 turtle drifter passed its first “float test” in Crystal Lake this past Thursday. We are now awaiting word from NOAA on when they will pick it up and deliver it to the captain of a fishing vessel so it can be dropped far offshore. Once the drifter is at sea, students will use data from its GPS unit to explore ocean currents and global wind patterns.

Students will not only track the real-time GPS data, but also make predictions for its future coordinates and path based on hypotheses about how air and water temperature changes may impact the course it follows.They’ll make comparisons between the turtle drifter and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch to explore how the movements of each are influenced by their size and shape. These studies will tie in with a later science unit on climate change and the Global Conveyor Belt.

Where in the world will the newest Wellan drifter end up? Stay tuned for updates on “The Voyage of the Turtle” so your family can follow along.

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