Ten Ocean Topics to Capture Your Kids!

Lori Roberts is a high school biology teacher in Muscle
Shoals, Alabama. Lori is a leader in ocean education and is a graduate
of National Geographic Education’s two-year professional development
program, the National Teacher Leadership Academy.

Kids can be easily distracted in a classroom environment; therefore, finding ways to motivate and involve them can become a major issue. When I introduce a new concept, I like to use a cool topic to capture the interest of my students. I recently asked each of my students to tell me what in the ocean they wanted to know more about.  Then I grouped and compiled their answers into the following list of ten. Hopefully you will find them helpful tools to “hook” students on learning about the ocean!

1.    Dolphins, Sea turtles and Sharks, Oh My!
Students love predators with personality. Dolphins, for example, are so smart that they have been trained by the Navy to “sniff” out mines and perform underwater surveillance. Sea turtles, one of my personal favorites, start out life on the beach in a dramatic fashion–with a precarious “race” to the ocean. Then, after struggling to survive those early days, they are rewarded by a very long life. And sharks, well… anything dangerous is fun to talk about! It is a well-known fact that kids love these big ocean animals.

2.    Bioluminescence
Isn’t it awesome that there are sea creatures that can produce their own light? How do they do it? Which ocean organisms can produce light? And just what is bioluminescence, anyway? To start, show students the TED talk by Dr. Edith Widder, in which she says that, “bioluminescence is the rule and not the exception in the ocean.” This would also be a good online research topic for your students. Give them a list of questions to seek out the answers to online (such as the three above), and then have them report back to their classmates.

3.    Fun Fact or Fantasy?
Giant squid actually exist–and we have proof. But what about sea serpents, sea dragons, and mermaids? Teach students the truth behind these myths, past and present (check out the oarfish–ancient people mistook these creatures for real sea serpents).

4.    Shipwrecks
This is a very romantic topic. It conjures up images of pirates and
hidden treasure. Discuss the famous sunken ship, Titanic, with your
students.  It is on the radar again this month with the 100-year
anniversary of its sinking and the release of Titanic 3D (a digitally
enhanced version of the 1997 James Cameron film). There are many other
famous wrecks that your kids will be interested in, as well. Talk about
how these wrecks have become small ecosystems.

5.    Coral Reefs
They are gorgeous and critically endangered. In your classroom, follow
the expedition to the Pitcairn Islands led by National Geographic
Explorer-in-Residence Enric Sala (who, incidentally, was named an
Explorer-in-Residence at the same time as James Cameron was last June). He
is on location studying and blogging about new discoveries concerning
coral reef ecosystems.

6.    Underwater Volcanoes and Hydrothermal Vents
Show video footage of Kawio Barat, which is considered to be one of the
largest underwater volcanoes. Underwater volcanoes are unique and
diverse ecosystems. This is a great way to lead into teaching about
hydrothermal vents and chemosynthesis. Chemosynthesis, similar to
photosynthesis, is a process organisms use to produce energy in the
absence of light.  Show the National Geographic video, Science and
Technology: Black Smokers
, which explains this unique habitat.

7.    Marine Megafauna – What’s Up With That?
Why are some things so big in the deep ocean? Many scientists wonder
what causes gigantism in the deep sea. Have your students investigate
this scientific mystery and write a brief summary with a hypothesis
about what they think causes the phenomenon–make sure they cite the
sources used!


Crushing pressure, freezing temperatures, and zero sunlight aren’t enough
of a challenge for giant tube worms. They’ve adapted to thrive at the
edge of hydrothermal vents, which spew superheated water saturated with
toxic chemicals. This colony was photographed 1.5 miles (2.4 kilometers)
below the ocean’s surface on the East Pacific Rise near the Galápagos
Photograph by Emory Kristof, National Geographic.

8.    Fisheries… Where Have All the Big Fish Gone?
This lesson will have a big impact on your students when they realize
the alarming rates at which our ocean is being depleted of many fish
stocks. Print a current article such as “Fishing Down Food Web Leaves
Fewer Big Fish, More Small Fish in Past Century
” for your students to
read and react to. There are multiple resources available for the
National Geographic documentary film The End of the Line: Where have all
the fish gone?
Show the film and go over fisheries statistics with your
students. I like to use the data displayed on the Fishing and
Aquaculture page of  www.theglobaleducationproject.org/earth.

9.    Glass Collection and Marine Debris
Set up a display or collection of items that can be found on a beach.
Think beyond seashells and sand dollars; you can also use sea glass and
marine debris. Talk about responsible collecting and reasons for not
purchasing these items from shops. Be sure to explain why you have
included marine debris in the display. What is marine debris? Several
resources on this topic are available through the National Geographic
Education activities Human Impacts on Ocean Ecosystems and Marine
Debris: A Legacy of Litter


Marine debris found inside an Albatross Bolus (Photo: NTLA: La Jolla 2010 by Lori Roberts)

10.    Class Scrapbook: Oceans
Most of my students have been to a beach, but what about those kids who
have never seen the ocean? Compile a class scrapbook and fill it with
pictures, stories, poems, and drawings. Involve all of your students,
including those that have never seen the ocean. Have those kids draw sea
creatures, write poems, or do something else that illustrates where
they would like to go to see the ocean, and why. 


My hand filled with items found on a trip to a marine protected area (MPA) in California (this was a no take zone). Photo by Lori Roberts, 2010.

With a little planning and preparation, you can make the ocean come
alive for your students! They will appreciate your efforts and reward
you with their enthusiasm.

What fascinates you about the ocean?

–Lori Roberts

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