MELBOURNE — The Florida Institute of Technology would like to encourage Ocean Engineering students to surf for college credit.
This semester for the first time ever Florida Tech students could enroll in Surf Engineering Analysis. The course description for OCE 4592 states that this course focuses on the physics of waves in the surf zone. Basically, the students design a field experiment on their own to collect data about force balances, buoyancy and hydrodynamic drag.
Robert Weaver is the associate professor of ocean engineering at Florida Tech and the mind behind this innovative class.
“This class provides a casual environment designed to get students comfortable and excited about basic physics concepts and other STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) subjects,” said Weaver.
The class of two sophomores, three graduate students and one dual-enrolled high school senior meets at Ocean Avenue in Melbourne Beach every other Monday morning. Bikinis and board shorts are perfectly proper attire.
I joined Weaver and his class one Monday morning for what can only be described as the coolest college class that I have ever attended in my life.
As I walked onto the beach, I found gathering of people listening intently to a series of instructions from their professor. A couple of guys carried a raft with two pressure gauges attached to cinder blocks across the beach and then swam them out past the surf zone at the beginning of class. These were placed on the ocean floor 100 feet apart, and are marked on the surface by an orange raft and buoy.
“These measure the height and steepness of the waves” said Andrew Sanger, 20, as we swam out past the breakers together.
Students have an arsenal of tools and gadgets at their disposal for data collection. Among the “school supplies:” two customized surfboards (shaped exclusively for the program by legendary Space Coast surfboard shaper George Robinson) with special cutout boxes for measurement instruments. Surf apparel giant Rip Curl also provided four of their specialty GPS surf watches at cost for the class. These watches retail at almost $400 each.
“We have received a lot of support from the local and national surfing community” said Weaver. “The Longboard House in Indialantic has provided us with a ton of equipment and support. George Robinson shaped the boards for us, and will also shape three new boards in varying sizes for us to add to the quiver for next semester.”
George Robinson’s son Christian, 17, who is dual-enrolled at Eau Gallie High School and FIT, is a student in Weaver’s class.
Once the pressure gauges are deployed, the students take turns surfing. Because the measurement instruments are embedded inside the surfboards, this is the best way to gather movement-based data on top of the waves. Students have several duties during the field work. Two are in the water surfing. They are joined by two students swimming in the surf zone using GoPro cameras to video each wave ride for later review. There are a few students on the beach collecting data, taking pictures and video, and tracking the students in the water for optimal safety.
Any student who wishes to get in the water throughout the course has to pass a hefty swim test at the onset. This is not a course designed to teach people how to surf or swim.
Weaver is himself a surfer. He fell in love with the sport while studying at the University of North Carolina’s Institute for Marine Sciences on the Outer Banks. He has been riding a longboard for about eight years and is completely hooked on the sport.
“Ocean engineering has one of the highest graduate incomes of any of the engineering disciplines, and the added bonus of always being near the ocean for your job,” Weaver said as he floated, straddling a borrowed longboard. “I’m hoping that this class and this program can help play a role in dismantling the old surfer stigma that associates surfers with being aimless beach bums. Most fully-invested surfers are at least part scientist these days.”
With a surfing-focused science class making its debut in the Florida Tech course catalog, I’d say that shift in the perception of surfers is well underway.
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