MiddleSchoolPortal/Ocean Systems

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<keywords content="middle school science ocean volcanic island formation tsunamis life ecosystems food webs biodiversity personal social perspective pollution endangered species conservation careers earth pedagogy" /> <metadescription content="This free, standards-based, online resource guide developed for teachers features digital resources that focus on earth and science concepts of the oceans including lessons and pedagogy. " />

Ocean Systems

Mother, mother ocean, I have heard you call
Wanted to sail upon your waters
Since I was three feet tall
You've seen it all, you've seen it all
Watched the men who rode you switch from sails to steam
And in your belly you hold the treasures few have ever seen
Most of 'em dream, most of 'em dream
Jimmy Buffett, 1974, "A Pirate Looks at Forty"

Oceans cover about 72 percent of Earth, yet how much does the average middle school student really know about them? Many students have never had any direct experience with an ocean, and may therefore discount their importance. However, most middle school students express some wonder regarding oceans based on their size alone, the exotic creatures that live there, or the lure of the unknown, like the deep oceanic trenches.



Ocean study connects to all content standards of the National Science Education Standards. For example, your students might be given this challenge: How does one study oceans scientifically? Presumably, students would hone their methods in science knowledge and skills while becoming more aware of current questions for research and the knowledge that has accumulated regarding our oceans. Students would likely form original questions as well, consistent with the methods of and nature of science—investigation uncovers more questions.

The Middle School Portal has already tackled the study of oceans once in the publication titled Oceans, Climate and Weather. Hence, this publication focuses on earth and physical science concepts other than climate and weather, including volcanic island formation and tsunamis; life science concepts such as ocean ecosystems, food webs, and biodiversity; science in personal and social perspectives including pollution, endangered species and conservation; and related careers. It may not necessarily be appropriate to teach a unit called oceans; rather, oceans might be used as a context within your existing units, such as ecosystems, energy transfer, systems thinking, or methods in science.

Background Information for Teachers

This section lists web resources regarding the oceans. Some are aimed at high school students, college students or teachers. All afford opportunity to increase content knowledge and develop a pedagogy for implementation. With facilitation, students should become more knowledgeable about ocean systems concepts and accurately connect and integrate those concepts into their current understanding of earth and life science concepts.

Many of the concepts in these resources are organized and contextualized for you by the NSDL Strand Map Service. These maps illustrate connections between concepts and across grade levels. An image of the middle grades (6-8) only part of the Systems map appears below. This map is one of five under the heading Common Themes. Clicking on a concept within the maps will show NSDL resources relevant to the concept, as well as information about related AAAS Project 2061 Benchmarks and National Science Education Standards. Move the pink box in the lower right hand corner of the page to see the grades 6-8 learning goals. Boxes that appear to be floating unconnected, connect to concepts in grade bands above or below. The K-12 map is visible at Systems. You may also want to look at the Patterns of Change map and the Scale map since oceans are dynamic, changing and of a scale most of us have difficulty comprehending.


Earth Science Literacy Principles: The Big Ideas and Supporting Concepts of Earth Science This 13-page document, published in 2009, states nine big ideas of earth science that all citizens should know. Each big idea contains a list of several related concepts. The big ideas focus on the nature of science, age of the earth, and dynamic interactions of rock, air, water, and life. "Earth is the water planet," Big Idea 5, is found on page 8.

110 Misconceptions About the Ocean by Robert Feller This brief but enlightening pdf is a perfect jumping-off point. The author draws on his experience teaching nonscience majors at a college. After a brief background he divides the misconceptions into categories, including Waves/Tides/Currents; Geographic/ Bathymetric/Global; Weather/Climate; Chemical; Biological/Organismal; Marine Mammals; Seafood; and Pollution. You will probably find some things on the list even you were unaware of, because our teacher education preparation often lacks thorough schooling in oceanography, among other science-specific disciplines. Becoming aware of misconceptions among college students informs our instruction as we construct our middle school science curriculum.

Ocean Motion and Surface Currents This brief page addresses misconceptions compiled from surveys and research.

Chapter 15: Earth and Space Starting Points This 47-page chapter is from a publication by Dennis and Cynthia Sunal called Science in the Elementary and Middle School. Because the chapter is in pdf form, you can scroll to the parts of particular interest. Pedagogically (in addition to your uncovering misconceptions through pre-assessment), this source reveals what students probably ought to know in order to maximize outcomes.

The chapter first presents an overview of basic content needed by all students. Second, the chapter presents the basic ideas in one area in earth and space science -- the earth in space -- for an elementary and middle school science curriculum. Next, alternative conceptions in the area of earth in space are provided to demonstrate specific needs that students have. Instructional strategies are discussed for earth in space difficulties to illustrate general strategies for earth and space science concepts. These specific alternative conceptions are followed by a discussion of alternative conceptions in the more general earth and space science areas relating to the earth’s oceans and atmosphere, space science, geology, the solar system, stars, and the universe. Following each general earth and space science alternative conception, examples of discrepant event activities and learning cycle lesson plans are provided. These discussions provide a foundation for teachers who wish to plan lessons that assist students in their learning of earth and space science concepts.

NOAA Ocean Service Education The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Ocean Service (NOS) education team creates teaching materials about research, technology, and activities in the areas of oceans, coasts, and charting and navigation. Click on Professional Development to access pages on corals, estuaries, oceans, weather, and climate.

Content Knowledge - Earth Science

Island Arc Formation This brief page identifies two ways islands form and contains an animated graphic. There are tabs for beginner or intermediate levels of explanation in addition to this advanced explanation.

Natural History: Island Formation This page is from a web site specific to the natural history of Hawaii. If you are an educator in Hawaii, you want to check this out!

Island Chain Formation An animation illustrates the chronological and spatial relationships of the Hawaiian island chain formation. It complements the resource above nicely, enabling conceptual understanding of an otherwise nonvisible process.

How Do Earthquakes Generate Tsunamis? This page contains a brief, but sophisticated explanation and a 60-minute time-lapsed, animated simulation modeling a real tsunami in Japan.

Can It Happen Here? From the U.S. Geological Survey, this page addresses the question with respect to specific U.S. locales.

Tsunami Forecasting This page originates from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and provides information regarding the technologies used in predicting tsunamis.

Living on Shaky Ground: How to Survive Earthquakes and Tsunamis on the North Coast Though the site is directed to North Coast (California and Oregon) residents, others can learn to appreciate the dangers from the information presented here. This page could be used with students with appropriate teacher facilitation.

Content Knowledge - Biodiversity

Ocean Planet: Smithsonian This is a list of species associated with the deep ocean. The genus and species are given for each organism as well as a brief description, and for most a photo. Links to additional resources are found on the page too. An excellent resource for a structured student research assignment.

Impacts of Biodiversity Loss on Ocean Ecosystem Services This 2006 article from Science is available with a free registration.

Ocean Biodiversity This page provides an excellent overview of the crucial role ocean life plays in the biosphere.

Dead Zones: Mysteries of Ocean Die Offs Revealed The Earth currently has more than 400 "dead zones" - marine expanses covering hundreds, or even thousands, of square miles that periodically become virtually lifeless. This National Science Foundation (NSF) special report explores the surprising causes of Oregon's dead zones, and the pioneering methods used to investigate them.

Lessons and Activities

Understanding Tsunamis Students will perform an experiment to discover how calving icebergs can create different wave patterns in the ocean and in a fjord. Before the experiment, students should write a hypothesis about how wave patterns might differ in the two environments.

Formation of Tsunamis A Flash animation, by McGraw-Hill, illustrates the steps involved in producing a tsunami. First, motion along a submerged fault plane causes a column of water to rise directly above the epicenter. As the wave approaches the shore, it slows, wave height grows, and wave crests grow closer together. The heightened wave then reaches the shore and can extend far inland, destroying everything in its path. Tsunami-like waves can also be caused by underwater landslides.

Ocean Observations Biodiversity Video This four-minute video originates at Census for Marine Life. It begins with compelling photos and this question, "What are the consequences for knowing so little about the biodiversity of life in the oceans and its ties to the health of the planet?" An excellent hook. Prepare students by having them respond in writing to a couple of questions before viewing the video. They should then record a few notes relating to the questions during the video and be prepared to discuss how their initial responses compare to their modified responses. For example, students could respond to

1. On a scale of 1-10, how much do oceanographers know about ocean systems? 1 being "very little" and 10 being "pretty much everything." What is the basis for your response?

2. How do you think oceanographers and marine biologists obtain information/observations about ocean systems? Be very specific.

3. How would knowing all there is to know about ocean systems be helpful?

Secrets of the Ocean Realm These science activities, developed for use with students in grades 5-7 (with extensions for lower and higher grades), investigate such topics as oceanography, marine biology, ecology, physics, conservation, and scuba diving. Each activity contains a set of objectives, background information, target teaching level, a list of materials, procedures, follow-up evaluation, and some additional web references.

Shark! Teacher Guide This 26-page pdf contains several classroom activities for grades 4-8. After students learn about shark anatomy and natural history, they can learn about shark families through use of a dichotomous key. The objectives of the Catch of the Day activity include simulating fishing techniques, exploring processes that result in bycatch, and learning why conservation is important and how it can be done.

Coral Reef Watch Coral reefs are beautiful and fragile. But what is their importance to the larger ocean community? Here are seven well-organized lessons for grades 4-7 from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Ocean Pollution This ThinkQuest page, put together by students for students, is well supported with a bibliography and graphics.

SMARTR: Virtual Learning Experiences for Students

Visit our student site SMARTR to find related virtual learning experiences for your students! The SMARTR learning experiences were designed both for and by middle school aged students. Students from around the country participated in every stage of SMARTR’s development and each of the learning experiences includes multimedia content including videos, simulations, games and virtual activities. Visit the virtual learning experience on Oceans and Weather.


The FunWorks Visit the FunWorks STEM career website for youth to browse science-related careers, including meteorologist, environmental scientist, and marine biologist.

Ocean Careers Browse information, education requirements, and salaries of over 50 ocean-associated careers.

Latest Science News from the New York Times

NYT > Fish and Other Marine Life

News about Fish and Other Marine Life, including commentary and archival articles published in The New York Times.

NYT > Oceans

News about Oceans, including commentary and archival articles published in The New York Times.

NYT > Tidal Waves and Tsunamis

News about Tidal Waves and Tsunamis, including commentary and archival articles published in The New York Times.

National Science Education Standards Connections

Physical Science concepts of properties and changes in matter relate to a study of oceans when one considers things like the water cycle, rock cycle and other abiotic factors of ocean systems.

Life Science concepts in structure and function in living systems, reproduction, behavior, and populations and ecosystems are integral to oceans.

Science and Technology concepts emerge in the tools and techniques scientists use to learn more about ocean life and relationships among the biosphere and hydrosphere.

Science in Personal and Social Perspectives concepts of (a) populations, resources and environments and (b) science and technology in society are related to ocean studies as well. For example, tsunamis cause millions of dollars in damage and lost life. New technologies are enabling more accurate forecasting, but at what cost? Who decides where these technologies should be employed and to what extent? Issues in pollution and fishing should be considered. How can the international community be counted on to act responsibly? What can individuals do to help?

Read the entire National Science Education Standards online for free or register to download the free pdf. The content standards are found in Chapter 6.

Author and Copyright

Mary LeFever has taught middle school science and college introductory biology and currently teaches high school biology. She is a doctoral candidate in science education and a resource specialist for the Middle School Portal 2: Math & Science Pathways project.

Please email any comments to Connect with colleagues at our social network for middle school math and science teachers at

Copyright August 2009 — The Ohio State University. Last updated September 19, 2010. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0840824. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.