Message in a Bottle School Project, A Thing of The (Recent) Past

How A Kailua School's Oceanography Project Can't Happen with Furlough Fridays

Message in a Bottle School Project, A Thing of The (Recent) Past

This past summer, a 13 year old student at Kailua Intermediate received a hand-written note from a pen pal in the Solomon Islands, located just below the equator. The note was the third in a series of communications between the two—an exchange that began last spring—the result of a wonderful story worthy of a childrens book. Project "Message in a Bottle" started as educator Derek Esibill's out-of-the-classroom effort to turn his kids on to science by shrinking the vast world of oceanography.

Esibill is a former first mate on the research sailing vessel Robert C. Seamans, where he educated kids for 10 years in Navigation and Nautical Science. The 38 year old Pennsylvania native came ashore 8 years ago, settling in Hawai`i, where he devotes his days to teaching Earth and Space Science, as well as Life Science, to 8th graders. It was during a visit from an old sailing friend, an engineer still on the Seamans, that Esibill came up with the idea: To drop messages in a bottle in the Pacific, written by his students, with hopes of explaining the currents, and maybe opening a line of communication between other Pacific Islanders.

In March of 2007, Esibill's 8th grade class of 30 students sealed 30 notes in Zip-Lock baggies, stuffed them in to empty wine bottles, corked and sealed the tops with wax before handing them to Esibill's engineer pal aboard the Seamans. A week later, they were dropped overboard, at latitude 15, longitude 157 (for you nautical buffs); halfway between Hawai`i and Palmyra in the Northern Pacific Ocean. The notes, which were all pre-screened by Esibill, focused mostly on who the kids were, where they were from, their families, and what life in Hawai`i was like. The school's address was attached.

The first response came a quick six months later, from a 13 year old girl who found a bottle on a beach near her home... in Papua New Guinea. The original note was written by Shauna Santos—coincidentally, also a 13 year old girl.

"It was astonishing for the bottle to have traveled that far, across the equator, in such a short amount of time," said Esibill.

The second contact came trickling in 6 months later, again from a girl, who's family lives in the Tuamotu Islands, just east of Tahiti and west of the Marquesas. The receiving girl's entire family contributed to the letter, asking if the school was interested in either flying them to Hawai`i, or shipping them supplies to their remote island. (Esibill later found out that the family had to take a 2-day sojourn to Tahiti in order to mail the letter to his school, as there is no service on their tiny atoll.)

We sat down with Mr. Esibill, to talk about this incredible exercise, how it affected his students—and inevitably—how he no longer will be able to perform similar creative projects due to Furlough Fridays instituted by the Department of Education and the State Government.

B on Hawaii: Clearly, with a loss of so many school days [17 between now and the end of 2009; another 17 next year], it's going to be nearly impossible to do things like this, no?

Derek Esibill, Educator, Kailua Intermediate: There's still some room for creativity in teaching. But because we're losing about a month of instructional time, the investigative tasks—the stuff that kids really get in to—is going to be very difficult. There's just no time for it, now. The kids need their core curriculum. But unfortunately, in my experience, that's not what sticks. People need to understand that kids [at 13 years old] are still very concrete and emotional thinkers at that stage of development. They need to see things hands-on to connect "I understand how that works. I wrote a letter. Put it in a bottle. Sent it via the ocean's currents. It was received." They aren't tuned to abstract thinking yet, so they need to see this kind of stuff. But now, there won't be time. It's very unfortunate.

B on Hawaii: How might it affect their normal classroom time, not having that hand's on experience?

Esibill: I've already seen their focus in the classroom slipping. First, we're running at a super-fast pace, just to keep up with what we need to teach. Plus, when every week is a 4-day week, well, the attention span is less. In good consciousness as an educator, I can't chop down my program and expect kids to grasp it. So I need to get it out. But in less time... it's going to be really difficult.Rushed.

B on Hawaii: Having traveled the mainland and noted how much more advanced other kids at parallel levels seem to be, even socially, is disconcerting. Now, even less structured time in school doesn't seem like we're headed in the right direction. No?

Esibill: Hawai`i's kids are not stupid. We sit in the center of the world's largest ocean. We're incredibly culturally diverse. The potential for us to learn is huge. We currently know less than 10% about our oceans, for example. For us not to be able to involve our students in real activities because the school year has been chopped down is not only bad for them, but bad for the entire community. Why not have our kids pair up to monitor the reef that's in our backyard? Research like that is a great way to have them think scientifically, all the while advancing meaningful science, as well as seeing which kids have a knack for it. We could be helping the science community, but there's no longer time.

B on Hawaii: Any solutions, as you see it, from the inside?

Esibill: The entire Department of Education needs to be restructured. The simplest way would be to put aside their pride and model ours off public school districts on the mainland that work really well. Also, all the employees in the DOE should be members of the same union [there are more than 3 right now]. Finally, kids need to be in school at least 190 days per year, not less than 160.

"It was astonishing for the bottle to have traveled that far, across the equator, in such a short amount of time," said Esibill.