Educator Spotlight: Experimenting with the Effects of Ocean Acidification

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Victoria Obenchain, this week’s Educator of the Week, teaches middle school science at the Saklan School in Moraga, California. Victoria helped her 6th-grade science class understand how carbon dioxide in the atmosphere leads to ocean acidification. They studied the effects of acids on coral reefs and the calcium carbonate shells of ocean organisms like clams, using weights to check the strength of shells before and after exposure to acid.

Victoria Obenchain is an educator and science specialist at the Saklan School. Photo by Roots and Shoots Photography.

Tell us about your capstone project for the Nat Geo Educator Certification Program. How did you land on the subject of coral reefs?

I chose the effect of climate change on coral reefs because my class had already spent a lot of time talking about how climate change affected the terrestrial earth.

One of my kids pointed out that we had spent all of our time focusing on what’s happening on land, but the majority of the planet is covered with water. They asked to learn more about how climate affects the oceans, so I started working on a lesson plan.

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An indicator chemical in the seawater on the right turns yellow when carbon dioxide diffuses into the solution. Photo by Victoria Obenchain

Normally when I teach about coral reefs, I don’t map it, and that was one of the things that I thought was really cool about working with National Geographic on this project.

Having the kids actually look at where things are happening on the planet brings a global perspective, so it’s not just the coral reefs in Florida or Hawaii that we’re talking about. We’re talking about reefs all over the world and showing that these are global issues. I love that aspect of it.

It’s clear that you have an open, frank line of communication with your class. How do you encourage students to open up to you like this?

Every day the class has a reflection. It’s just a few different questions, like why does this matter in general, why does this matter to me personally and globally, and what other questions did this bring up. They can’t leave any of them blank, so their goal is really to reflect back and think. Then the next day I go through the questions and see if there are any ideas that are a good launching point for class that day.

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Shells from students’ ocean acidification experiments bubble when exposed to vinegar. Photo by Victoria Obenchain

The goal is to help them understand how their education is important. If they think about why they’re learning something, it surfaces a lot of really good questions and discussions because of their natural curiosity. And even if I can’t answer all of their questions or cover those specific topics in class, I can give extra credit assignments, or I can give them side projects to do so they can work on something they’re interested in. I don’t want their curiosity to be stifled.

What is the biggest impact that you think the Educator Certification Program has had on you and your students?

My kids were so excited about the lesson we did. Seeing how the world was affected by climate change and how they contribute to it empowered them to change their behavior. Their excitement around the issue was so great that it inspired me to get better at showing them how everything we discuss has meaning, and how everything we talk about is connected.

The program has allowed me to be more open in my teaching, and it’s allowed me to make global connections that I wasn’t able to make before. But the best part was seeing my class get excited about making those connections themselves.

Educators: Download full lesson plan here.


This interview has been edited and condensed.

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The Educator Spotlight series features inspiring activities and lessons that educators are implementing with their students that connect them to the world in bold and exciting ways.

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