January 19, 2016

It didn’t matter what science class I was teaching – Introduction to Physical Science, Genetics, AP Biology, Aquatics – if I mentioned “the ocean”, students’ eyes would light up and they would hang on my every word. Every teacher’s dream. So, I would pepper ocean ecosystems, marine animals, and properties of water throughout the courses I taught. It was not long before I realized that this was not a forced idea just to engage students in learning. The ocean is a natural environment that yes, is fascinating to students, but also demonstrates how isolated scientific ideas can come to life in the ocean.

Taking a few of the disciplinary core ideas from Next Generation Science Standards (http://www.nextgenscience.org/next-generation-science-standards) such as Ecosystems: Interactions, Energy, and Dynamics then add a generous helping of sharks. Who isn’t fascinated by sharks? An apex predator, sharks keep the ocean healthy by keeping other populations in check and balancing food webs. They also have cultural significance around the globe. Students can explore the interdependence and interconnectedness of organisms in the ocean through a creature that fascinates them. They can study challenges facing our oceans by examining overfishing, human impact and cruel practices such as shark finning. This leads to discussions of the costs and benefits to all of the stakeholders, including economics, the local people, and other life in the sea. Students can explore From Molecules to Organisms: Structures and Processes (NGSS) by studying the locomotion and sensory systems of sharks. They could research current understanding on the topic and do their own investigations, watch videos of sharks moving in the ocean, and talk with marine scientists.

And that just skims the surface of all that can be explored in a classroom using the ocean as the context for learning. Think about the physical sciences – ocean currents, the polarity, density, and salinity of water, and ocean acidification. Why is the ocean salty? What drives currents around the globe? What would happen if I followed a drop of water? Where would it go? What is the pressure like at the bottom of the ocean? The questions are endless. And having students come up with them is all the better!

I taught a student years ago that was not crazy about school. She took my aquatic biology class because she needed a science credit. She did just fine in class, participated in discussions and activities, and came to class (she did not always go to other classes). I saw her a few months ago. I taught her about ten years ago in class and the first thing she said when she saw me was, “Hi Mrs. Long. I remember you. I did a research project on the humuhumunukunukuapua’a in your class. It’s the state fish of Hawaii.”

In my classroom, I used to challenge students at the beginning of the year to come up with a concept, an idea, anything, that cannot be related to science. And they would try. And I’d always come up with a connection. The richest part of this challenge was when students would approach me with their ideas, the ensuing discussion was filled with passion, questions, more ideas, more questions. You just can’t beat that kind of scientific discourse with students. My new challenge is this: find a concept, an idea, anything…that is not connected to the ocean. I’ll bet we can find the connection. Let’s discuss!

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