When you go to a school that emphasizes science, sometimes the learning doesn't stop in the summer.
With help from FIU and the Celebration of the Sea Foundation, a group of high school conservationists are getting high on the environment, literally.
You could call it a trial balloon. It's red, filled with hydrogen, and loaded with cameras and stabilizing devices. Lent by Alta Systems, it's an experiment to help a group of high school kids get a bird's eye view of the mangrove forest along Biscayne Bay, if birds had infrared vision.
"They are very high tech systems and high tech cameras that can deliver a lot of information," explains Bertrand Dano, head of Alta Systems, explaining the capabilities of his company's balloons, which can be outfitted with multi-spectrum and infrared cameras.
To a science teacher, there's practicality to consider.
"It's cheap, it's practical, and it's effective," said Bridgette Gunn, a teacher at MAST@FIU, a public magnet school based at FIU's Biscayne Bay Campus in North Miami.
Principal Matt Welker spoke to NBC6 while a drone hovered over his shoulder.
"Welcome to SEA Corps," Welker said, barely containing his glee that the drone was nearly drowning out his voice. "This is a program that we're operating this summer using advanced technology to explore our environment."
That technology includes the remote-controlled drone, equipped with a conventional video camera. The ten kids from MAST@FIU are doing research on sea level rise and climate change as part of SEA Corps, which stands for Student Environmental Advocacy. The program is sponsored by FIU and the Celebration of the Sea Foundation.
"I think it's fantastic, it's a new perspective on the world we live in and it shows us great information that we otherwise wouldn't be able to get," said SEA Corps member Andres Martinez, speaking about the benefits of the balloon and drone cameras.
Welker says this is an opportunity for students to see a real-world application of science technology.
"The issues of climate change and sea level rise are very real for us in South Florida so we want these young people not only to be well-versed in it but to be advocates in bringing solutions to these problems," Welker said.
Sometimes there's genius in simplicity. It's not a complicated idea to attach cameras to a balloon, but the results they get from an airborne, infrared camera can be revealing.
"We can compare the visual data with the infrared data and try to look at trees that might be stressed before they start to manifest those signs visually," Gunn explains, speaking about mangrove trees. "A change in sea level can change the concentration of salinity in the soil and we'd see that kind of die-off and the stress that again would be picked up by that infrared imaging from the balloon."
Unfortunately, the kids in SEA Corps will have to wait for those infrared images because strong winds snapped the balloon's line attachment and it flew away! That won't, however, stop them from kayaking, snorkeling, and investigating the ecosystem, on the ground, in the water or from the sky.