January 19, 2016

How do we engage students in learning about science? This is an urgent matter. Afterall, the National Math & Science Initiative reported that only 36 percent of U.S. high school students are ready for college-level science.

Engagement is key—and capturing imaginations. Classroom material must be engaging and what’s more eye-popping than sharks, coral reefs, and sea turtles?

You’re landlocked? Believe it or not, it’s easier than you would think to bring the mysterious depths of the ocean to life in the classroom, no matter where you’re located.

Using the ocean, you can teach many fundamental core concepts and relevant issues.

There are many ecosystems in the ocean, with characteristics that offer a range of settings to study­–from coral reefs to the polar regions, kelp forests to the darkest depths of the sea. Offering a choice of which ecosystem to study will tap into a student’s natural interest in these topics and create buy-in.

Teaching about EcologyStudents can brainstorm questions for and then dive into research. Where is it? What lives there (plants, animals, microorganisms)? What is the water like (warm, calm, turbid)? What do the animals eat? Depending on the students, the answers can be as in-depth as determining the salinity, amount of dissolved oxygen, pH, and the families of invertebrates, vertebrates, plants, and algae that live there. Or, the answers can be introductory, such as the relative temperature, whether the ecosystem is close to the surface, and identifying living and non-living components. Here’s a sample of a lesson plan for middle school.

As students brainstorm questions and begin to find answers, more questions will surface. Let’s look at a coral reef ecosystem. In answer to the questions “what lives there?” and “what do the animals eat?” students may find that reef sharks eat fish, fish eat smaller fish, smaller fish may eat algae or plankton.

Teaching about EcologyBut what about coral? What do they eat? This can begin a conversation about symbiosis and how some algae, called zooxanthellae, live in clusters within coral polyps. They photosynthesize, providing energy to the coral. Coral also eat zooplankton. What would happen if any of these organisms were removed from the system? Students could demonstrate what would happen to the ecosystem if any one population of organisms was removed. This can lead to discussions about current research on coral reefs and the stresses that are affecting these important ecosystems today.

This is just a brief overview of some of the concepts that can be studied through the context of the ocean. There are so many more! Let’s arm students with knowledge so they can address current issues affecting the ocean, practice their skills of gathering evidence, and use technology and engineering to develop solutions to the problems they identify along the way. Students will develop natural interest in science—and one of the most exciting places to look for engaging topics is the large ecosystem that covers 71 percent of the Earth.

The ocean.

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