The College of the Florida Keys is doing groundbreaking work

Dr. Patrick Rice, Chief Science and Research Officer for the College of the Florida Keys, joined Good Morning Keys on KeysTalk 96.9/102.5FM this morning to talk about what’s been going on in the Keys.

The temperatures have impacted a number of issues in our area recently.

Dr. Rice said, “This is more evidence that the global climate is shifting, is becoming warmer. Some people would call it controversial topic, but there’s no doubt there’s more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, because we’re burning this fossil fuel. If you think about it, all of the carbon dioxide that was in the atmosphere back in the primitive times of the dinosaurs, that was sequestered and trapped underground, in the form of oil is now being released. So without a doubt, there’s more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. And temperatures are rising.”

The College of Florida Keys has continuing research projects.

Dr. Rice said, “With regard to coral reefs, we’re part of this big federal initiative called Mission Iconic Reefs, which is through the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Our primary role is in that partnership, which is, many, many entities up and down the Keys and in Florida and federally, working together to basically focus on seven iconic reefs and the idea is, if we can focus our efforts on those seven reefs, then you’ll get what’s called the spillover effect. Those reefs become healthy, the corals when they spawn, they’ll start to populate areas around that, creating habitat and structure for fish. Our role primarily is assisting with maintenance of these iconic reefs, out planting of corals and providing the skilled labor, through scientific divers and other things to help with this project.”

The students are very much hands-on in these projects.

Dr. Rice said, “That’s part of our Marine Environmental Technology program. So basically, students come in, they take coral reef biology and management, and we have a class called coral restoration. Then we have another class called assessing coral reef habitats. Those three classes really teach those students all they need to know. When you combine that with our basic research diving class, which gets the students qualified to be certified scientific divers, to the American Academy of underwater sciences, then they’ve really got this finely tuned skill set, that’s perfectly applicable for this type of work.”

The Keys are a great area for studying this type of ecosystem.

Dr. Rice asked, “Who wouldn’t want to come down to the Florida Keys and study marine science? I just finished my 15th year, starting my 16th year at the college. And when I came initially, it was just me, back in 2008. I was a director of Marine Science with a bunch of adjunct instructors. We had 23 students. Now, we’ve got close to 200 students in both Marine Environmental Technology, and our marine resource management, which is a bachelor’s degree. I’ve really seen this program grown, gain national recognition. Now we have people coming to us because they know the quality of what we’re putting out. A perfect example of that is that I have five students over the past decade, that have gotten jobs with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration with associate’s degrees, and that’s unheard of. If you looked at any job posting on NOAA, they always say, bachelors minimum, masters preferred. So usually they won’t even look at you, but because of the quality of what we’re pumping out as far as scientific divers, and that skill set, people who are doing research, realize you don’t have to have somebody with a masters or bachelors to do that type of work. And they hire them.”

Internships are not only available, sometimes they’re mandatory.

Dr. Rice explained, “I was instrumental in building these programs. It’s based on what I experienced when I was going through my educational process. I got my bachelor’s degree, and I thought I was ready to go out and save the world and I went out and put all these applications out and in most of the interviews, these people were asking me questions like, what I carry in the toolbox to keep the boat running so I could collect the data for the PhD who was running the show. I didn’t have any skills. I remember in one interview, I told him, I’d take duct tape and baling wire, and if that didn’t work I’d bang it with my giant biology book. I could tell you how the trees breathe, but I couldn’t tell you how to change a sparkplug in a boat.”

That lead to a program that includes training for the skills needed on boats.

Dr. Rice said, “We employed two and four cycle outboard engine repair and maintenance. We put in basic seamanship. We brought in the scientific diving program. Then we started developing courses on the work that was actually being done in the Florida Keys, like coral restoration, like seagrass restoration, so that these students would have training specific to what they would be being considered for for employment at an associate or the bachelors level.”

The Renewable Test Vessel program is also a new one at the College of the Florida Keys.

Dr. Rice said, “I’m very proud to be at the College of Florida Keys. As the Chief Science Research Officer, I have a little bit of autonomy on program development. I’ve been down here, like I said, for 15 years now, and I can’t get over all the renewable energy that we have around us, we’re immersed in it. We’re the 12th sunniest city in the country. We were the windiest city in the state of Florida. We’re just immersed in all this moving water, all around us. We have the Florida current right off shore, which is the beginning of the Gulf Stream, which is the most powerful oceanic current on the planet. We’ve got the moon pulled in the Atlantic Ocean, into the Gulf of Mexico, back and forth every day underneath all of these bridges. So I wrote a proposal to the National Science Foundation to develop a program to train in renewable energy, with the focus on those three technologies, solar, wind and hydro kinetic power. NSF gave the college a million dollars, and we developed the program. One of the results of the program was with help from local industry partners, and students and staff, we actually built a 32-foot boat that’s got a 16 foot beam on it. So that means it’s 16 feet wide and it’s 100 percent electric and runs 100 percent by renewable energy, wind and solar. It’s quite impressive. It’s a major feat and I’m so proud. Whenever we’re out there on the ocean, everybody turns and looks at us twice because it’s just such a unique looking vessel. It’s liberating actually to ride on this thing and know that you’re just converting the sunlight into mechanical energy that’s spinning the propellers from the electric outboard engines.”

Does the boat need to be recharged?

Dr. Rice said, “On a sunny day and in good weather, we can go forever. It’s really liberating. I never have to fuel it up. So I just hop on it and go. The vessel is designed specifically to test hydrokinetic power. So it’s got a big 10-foot square hole right in the middle of it and basically, we’re marketing it and working with local industry partners, who need to test, prototype hydrokinetic power. So basically, they come to us, we put it on the boat, and we take it out to Boca Chica Navy base. It’s a great place for us to test because it’s deep, and it’s wide. So we just go out there with one of these devices, put it in the water, and I can drive the boat at one knot, two knots, three knots and we can see exactly how much electricity the device will create. If everybody’s happy with the electricity that’s being produced, and you want to get some real world data, we can lift it out of the water, we take it out to someplace that has a strong current, like the Gulf Stream or something like that. We drop anchor, put the device in the water and let mother nature do the work. We can say now we’ve got real world data in a saltwater environment where we’ve got fish and turtles and things swimming around, you can totally observe everything. There’s no other actual testing facilities like what we’re doing right now. So it’s very unique in the nation and the world. Again, I couldn’t be more proud of it.”

The public can take a look at the boat when it’s on the waters – there are banners on the boat.

Dr. Rice said, “We’re advertising a little bit for our local industry partners that’s helped us so much, as well to design and build the vessel, that’s Hydrokinetic Energy Corporation here in Key West. Everything I’m talking about here is part of the mission of the college. If we can get off the grid and help them foster renewable energy in the Florida Keys and we can help restore the environment back to its historic levels of coral restoration and maybe one day even putting some fish back with a group of projects, then maybe this little island chain can be a demonstration to the whole world on how to live sustainably with your environment. That’s really our goal. We want to be a leader at that level. So that when people think of the Florida Keys, they think that’s the place we want to live.”