A Winning Lesson in Marine Biology

From the Sweet 16 to the Final Four, seventh grade science students competed in outdoor plankton races in a college basketball tournament-style contest.

The friendly spring competition is the brainchild of Dana McNamee, chair of the Science Department.

Using balloons and other materials, students created models that mimic the characteristics of plankton. For the purpose of the races, they were to think of the sky as the ocean. “Phytoplankton specifically need to stay at the surface of the water in order to have enough sunlight to photosynthesize, so students tried to capture some of their natural design through this exercise in biomimicry,” McNamee explained.

The races took place on the balcony of Doc Wilson Hall on April 20 and 21 with students facing off one-on-one by releasing their handmade plankton in the air. The slowest plankton model to reach the ground was declared the winner. 

Ella Liu created more than six prototypes and was inspired by the helicopter-type seeds from the trees in her backyard. “My plankton is made out of straws and paper and resembles a windmill. I cut up straws, stacked three on top of each other to make a frisbee shape, then folded paper on the ends and fastened it with tape,” she said. “The paper ends of the plankton are slanted downward so that when it falls, it spins.”

Experimenting with design proved to be helpful for Sam Haas, who used a balloon, a tissue paper parachute and straws for his plankton. “During this project, I learned about topics like surface area, drag and terminal velocity,” he said. “I learned when I tried out heavier prototypes, they had a higher top speed when falling.” 

Elaina Barreto’s plankton was pretty in pink. “I tied pink ribbon to the ends of a pink plastic bag and glued two pieces of light pink felt on the bag as eyes. It is supposed to look like a jellyfish, which is a type of zooplankton.”
Barreto observed the wide range of strategies used by her classmates, explaining that “Some people used balloons filled with air to help their plankton float, while others just used as few materials as possible so their project could float down slower.”
McNamee was pleased with her students’ efforts: “We had a few designs that took advantage of the concept of surface area and did such a good job staying afloat that they flew over the roof!”

Floating above the rest, in the end, were the winners from each class: Jack Costo, Luke Jaeger, Mason Rosenblatt and Sofia Solares.