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McDougle Middle Students Celebrate "Cheerwine"

In April 2018, an autonomous yellow float was launched in the Weddell Sea by the Southern Ocean Carbon and Climate Observations and Modeling Project (SOCCOM). Its name is Cheerwine, thanks to McDougle Middle School (MMS) Science Teacher, Christine Lippy’s students, who participated in an international Adopt-a-Float program.  On December 2, after a two year delay, Dr. Bob Key, one of the lead scientists of the SOCCOM program, paid virtual visits to all three grade levels of MMS students to talk about Cheerwine, climate change and the Southern Ocean, and to answer a wide range of thoughtful and excited questions.

Since Cheerwine launched two and a half years ago, Lippy and her students have followed the float’s release of data from the Southern Ocean. Dr. Key’s presentations brought the evolving instructional experience into sharp focus, and his detailed slides, videos and explanations might have been delivered to an undergraduate or graduate class, so advanced and far-reaching was the content. For the nearly 200 students who had the good fortune to participate in his presentations, the introduction to chemical oceanography was rich in information and insights. 

cheerwine at MMS The SOCCOM project is funded by the National Science Foundation, and it comprises some of the top ocean scientists from across the country. Their mission is to learn more about the impact of climate change on the world’s oceans, with a target of the Southern Ocean where many coral reefs are dying off.  Because of the many weather and accessibility challenges of conducting research in the waters around Antarctica, SOCCOM has developed a fleet of more than 200 robotic floats to gather data. Cheerwine is one of those floats. 

As Lippy explained to her students when she introduced the project in 2018, “Because part of this program is meant to increase awareness of the impact of climate change, education and outreach is part of SOCCOM. Of the 200 floats, 50 will be adopted by middle schools, one in each state...We are the N.C. middle school who gets to adopt one of these floats! This means we have access to all the data, are able to name a float, and have a school wide visit from a Princeton scientist who specializes in oceans and climate change.”

Over the past two years, MMS students have become familiar with the connection to Cheerwine and SOCCOM, and they have been able to incorporate elements from the interactive sites to study data from the floats. SOCCOM also provides an ever-growing list of articles and blogs for students and teachers to access.  

Cheerwine data The goal of SOCCOM’s partnership with classrooms across the country is to inspire and educate students about the Southern Ocean and climate change. By providing an opportunity for middle school students to engage directly with world-class scientists, they  learn about the advanced research by tracking SOCCOM floats.

Dr. Key’s visit was originally scheduled for spring 2019, but it was postponed. And then the pandemic hit, and the only visit possible was virtual, but when the day finally arrived, there seemed to be little lost in the substitute experience. For each of the three presentations, Key spoke for nearly 90 minutes, part of which was a Q&A. At the end of his long Cheerwine day, Key was still smiling warmly, and he told Lippy that he was tremendously impressed with the questions her students had asked.

Students learned that Cheerwine takes measurements of the Southern Ocean’s oxygen, nitrate and carbon content, in order to analyze the ocean’s role in the global carbon cycle. Oceans absorb carbon dioxide, and cold water absorbs more gas than warmer waters. Through that process in the Southern Ocean, some of the risks of global warming are decreased. Dr. Key described upwelling and the Coriolis effect, the circumpolar currents and Ekman transport. He described how Cheerwine and the other floats descend to 1,000 meters, and then 2,000 meters and the sensors radio data back to ships and satellites to share  their measurements of salinity, oxygen, pressure, nitrogen and PH.

Cheerwine presentation Scientists understand the absorption power of the Southern Ocean is lessening over time and its “sponge effect” may only be able to mitigate climate change for so long. The open-source data from the floats helps predict how global warming will change over time, and those predictions help support climate models around the world. 

Dr. Key didn’t focus only on chemical and physical oceanography. He showed photographs and described penguins and other birds visible from the Southern Ocean ships from which the floats are launched. He recommended all the students view one of his favorite weather documentaries, “Decoding the Weather Machine,” and he talked at length about the long academic and research journey he took to reach his position as professor at Princeton University for 40 years.

Perhaps a few, or more, MMS students now have oceanography as a career goal, thanks to Cheerwine, Christine Lippy and Dr. Key.