NASA partners with high school on project

BAY ST. LOUIS -- Researchers at NASA’s John C. Stennis Space Center have teamed up with students at Hancock High School to study the intrusion of salt water into vital coastal fresh water areas.
The Salinity Drifter Project conducted by the Stennis Applied Science and Technology Project Office focuses on collecting data about salinity variations that could affect vegetation and various species living in coastal fresh waters.
Stennis researchers are helping students at Hancock High School assemble and deploy a floating sensor module -- a drifter -- that will measure salinity and temperature and transmit this information via

“The Drifter Project provides students with an opportunity to actively participate in NASA research projects,” said Duane Armstrong, acting chief of the Stennis ASTPO. “Satellite and airborne sensors provide tremendously valuable information; however, we often need data we cannot get from those platforms.
“By constructing and deploying the drifter, the students are helping us acquire data we need to understand what is happening to the coastal marshes and other sensitive ecosystems. I hope the experience encourages some of these students to pursue careers in science and engineering.”

Salinity is an important indicator of the health of coastal wetlands threatened by sea level rise, storm surge and subsidence that has fallen onto the sea floor in the Gulf of Mexico region. Much of the local wetland vegetation in the region occurs within a mixture of freshwater and saltwater environments. Depending on the amount of saltwater intrusion, vegetation within some marsh and wetland environments may die off or be replaced by more salt-tolerant, and often non-native, species.

NASA researchers at Stennis are monitoring salinity levels in coastal waters but have been hampered by a lack of existing baseline data. Such data can be collected via Conductivity Temperature Depth devices, but it is an expensive option.
In response, Stennis engineers adapted an idea demonstrated at the University of California at Berkeley and developed their own low-cost, floating saline measuring device. The Stennis drifter device can be built and monitored by students. It transmits salinity measurements every 15 minutes to a Twitter account via a cell phone modem. The data then are imported and uploaded to NASA’s ASTPO web page.

A field prototype of the drifter was initially tested in the Pearl River at Stennis Space Center. After NASA researchers ensured their prototype was fully operable, they purchased a full set of parts for students at Hancock High School to assemble and later deploy their own salinity drifter as part of a lesson plan developed with NASA for an aquatic science class. By working with NASA scientists, students learned of NASA’s Earth science and remote sensing work and were shown the value of pursuing educations in the core fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
The Hancock device will be placed in the nearby Jourdan River and will provide measurement data for several weeks, until the cell phone component dies. Once imported, the data from the device will be available to researchers online.

Callie Hall, NASA team lead for the Hancock project, said she hopes the effort can be expanded in 2011 to add another sensor and improve on the original design.
“Collaborating with local high school students on a topic relevant to one of our current projects on marsh monitoring has allowed us to explore future opportunities with these students,” she said. “An expansion of the current drifter to include another sensor, such as one that measures turbidity, may assist with data collection for some of our other in-house projects and may allow us to expand the effort to other interested, local high schools.”

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