The Artistic Oceanographer Program: Encouraging Ocean Science Literacy through Multidisciplinary Learning

By Haley, Sheean T.; Dyhrman, Sonya T. | Science and Children, April-May 2009 | Go to article overview

The Artistic Oceanographer Program: Encouraging Ocean Science Literacy through Multidisciplinary Learning


Haley, Sheean T., Dyhrman, Sonya T., Science and Children


Oceans are essential to life on Earth. Covering almost two-thirds of the planet, the oceans house nearly 80% of all life, regulate weather and climate, provide 50% of the planet's oxygen production, and serve as a critical source of food and transportation for a large portion of the human population. Despite their significance, the oceans are often not incorporated into K-12 educational curricula. In fact, ocean sciences are underrepresented at most levels and rarely appear in curriculum materials, textbooks, assessments, or standards.

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As a result, many adults are poorly informed on the importance of the ocean for global ecology and human society. In response to the general lack of ocean literacy, the U.S. Commission for Ocean Policy submitted its recommendations for strengthening the nation's awareness of the importance of the oceans as part of a coordinated and comprehensive ocean policy to the President and Congress in September 2004. The Commission noted that a key component in increasing public awareness of the role oceans play is through diverse educational opportunities, starting at a young age, and focused on the marine environment and ocean issues. Fortunately, the marine environment and oceans are inherently interesting to children, making them excellent teaching tools for engaging students in basic science.

Introducing the oceans to young students in a classroom setting is helped by their natural curiosity about the world around them. This attitude was the motivation for the development of the Artistic Oceanographer Program (AOP), designed to engage elementary school students (fifth graders) in ocean sciences and to illustrate basic fifth-grade science and art standards with ocean-based examples. The program combines short science lessons, hands-on observational science, and art, and focuses on phytoplankton, the tiny marine organisms that form the base of the marine food web. The science and art portions of the project mesh well with existing fifth-grade education standards for our state (Massachusetts) and align with the Essential Principles and Fundamental Concepts of ocean literacy, as defined by a consortium of scientists and educators and written in accordance with the National Science Education Standards.

The AOP can be implemented in a variety of ways, but we typically divide the lessons into four days (one hour per day) of activities. We describe three days of lessons here, and the fourth is featured online (see NSTA Connection). Each day begins with a brief lesson with PowerPoint slides. These slides provide bullets of information and images to enhance our discussion. This is followed by a laboratory segment. The learning outcomes for each activity are described below. Piloted in 2006 in a fifth-grade class in Falmouth, Massachusetts, the AOP has been integrated into existing curricula for the past three years for an increasing number of fifth-grade students.

Day 1: Introduction to the Oceans

We begin by leading students through an introduction to the oceans. Student participation is encouraged and the talk is kept engaging by asking and answering questions during the lesson and by keeping it brief (about 15 minutes). The content focuses on ocean characteristics, food webs, and primary productivity.

We start the science lesson by discussing ocean characteristics. This includes information related to the portion of Earth's surface covered by ocean, the average depth of the ocean, the importance of the oceans, and the incredible diversity of life in the ocean. Ocean life faces some very different challenges compared to life on land. Some common questions that students ask that convey their interest include: Where is the deepest point in the ocean? (Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean) Is there life at the bottom of the ocean? (Yes) What is the largest animal in the ocean? (Blue whale).

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Next, we describe and compare food webs in the ocean with those on land, establishing an understanding of phytoplankton and seaweeds as the base of marine food webs and plants (e. …

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