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Falmouth Education Foundation Fosters Citizen Science

Falmouth Education Foundation Fosters Citizen Science 

By Sarah E. Murphy

Students at Falmouth High School are making waves in Cape Cod Bay with the intent of creating a positive ripple effect. 

Two mini boats were launched in Plymouth on December 21 by United States Coast Guard Commander Larry Johnson, joining a drifter that was deployed on December 2, the culmination of the “Cape Cod Sea Turtle Project,” spearheaded by FHS science teacher Cheryl Milliken. Using mini boats to visualize potential wind movement, the goal is to investigate where winds push cold-stunned turtles that wash up on beaches along the outer Cape during the winter months. 

The project was initiated by James Manning, a recently retired physical oceanographer from NOAA Fisheries, and Rob Reynolds of Zephyr Education Foundation in Woods Hole, in collaboration with Educational Passages, a non-profit organization that works with schools to connect and showcase similar projects.

 Students and teacher in a hallway, standing in front of their mini boatDr. Manning donated three mini-boats to FHS, outfitted with GPS sensors, to be used for a retrofit project, made possible with a grant from Falmouth Education Foundation. Students were tasked with upgrading the vessels’ technology in order to provide location information and real-time oceanographic data via satellite on an hourly basis. 

By accessing the data and wind information, the hope is to predict where floating objects may wash ashore under similar conditions in the future. The student scientists will be able to include the data in their projects for the 2023 K-12 Steam Fair, in which participation is required for membership in the National Science Honor Society. 

The information will also be beneficial to Mass Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Refuge. 

“Historically, turtles have washed up in Brewster and Wellfleet, sometimes Truro, so Audubon volunteers walk up and down the beaches looking for them,” Ms. Milliken said. 

The data will be used to make recovery efforts more effective.

Ms. Milliken has built and launched drifters with Dr. Manning and her Marine Ecology class in previous years, so she recruited two of her students, Lauryn McGann and Mj Jacob, for the mini boat project. She also opened the extra-curricular opportunity to students who possess a strong interest in STEAM. Nine students in total made contributions to the mini boat retrofit and launch: Cole Whelan, Amelia Donnelly, Lexi Morton, Tucker Morton, Elmira Colpus, Amena Wiffenbach, and Morgan Chaves. 

The names of the vessels - Riptide 7 and Rockstar 2 -  will be kept to honor the ceremonial seafaring tradition, but FHS students made their mark by personalizing the vessels with hand-painted sails featuring the Clipper mascot. They also enclosed “message in a bottle” inspired care packages, safely packed in small, plastic bags, equipped with Clipper stickers, snapshots of the students, and a No Guff T-shirt, with contact information for the prospective finder.

As the project continues, one of Ms. Milliken’s goals is to have four working mini-boats, one to be adopted by each of Falmouth’s elementary schools.

Both vessels landed in Scituate on December 22, and were recovered by staff at NOAA’s Stellwagen National Marine Sanctuary. Ms. Milliken stressed that wind activity was atypical at the time of deployment due to the predicted Nor’easter that eventually impacted the region. 

Ms. Milliken credited the students’ diligent participation in seeing the mini boat launch to fruition. 

“They’ve been working on this in their own time - after school, and during their academic support period,” she said.

She believes the hands-on nature of the experiment makes it a more tangible way for students to learn the impacts of air and water temperature, particularly on their own environment, which contributes to their enthusiasm. 

“This project really challenges them to work together to solve problems and apply science to real-life situations,” Ms. Milliken said. 

She also credited the partners and volunteers who contributed their time and talent, including Cassie Stymiest of Educational Passages for her technology assistance, and Jim Manning, who created a tracking website. Ms. Milliken underscored the combined expertise of all involved, and thanked Falmouth Education Foundation for providing an invaluable educational experience. 

“This has been a fantastic opportunity for our students to participate in citizen science and learn from the professionals who work in the field,” she said. 

Stacey Strong, an elementary math instructional coach for Falmouth Public Schools, also contributed to the project by providing one of the drifters and materials for the drifter sails, while Dr. Manning provided the second drifter. Drifter satellite data are funded by a grant awarded to the Falmouth High School Science Department from Salt Pond Areas Bird Sanctuaries, Inc. 

Mj Jacob has enjoyed the collaborative nature of the mini boat project. 

“It’s been cool to hang out with my friends, while working together on something that will become much more,” they said. 

Lauryn McGann appreciates the practical experience she has gained. 

“I want to get into environmental science or marine science, and this is a really good way to get a head start on what I might be doing in my future,” she said. 

“It’s been nice to work with the technology and get a good introduction. It’s also a brain break from the science we do in school, because you’re doing science in a way that’s not for a grade or a job.” 

Falmouth Education Foundation supports educational excellence and innovation in the Falmouth Public Schools. Since 2006, FEF has funded over 800 teacher-created projects. For more information, visit Falmouth Education Foundation or on Facebook. 

Sarah E. Murphy