Academic journal article The Science Teacher

A Rising Tide: Students Explore the Effects of Thermal Expansion on Sea Levels-Both Globally and Close to Home

Academic journal article The Science Teacher

A Rising Tide: Students Explore the Effects of Thermal Expansion on Sea Levels-Both Globally and Close to Home

Article excerpt


Earth's climate is rapidly changing as the concentration of atmospheric greenhouse gases increases. These heat-trapping gases, data shows, raise global temperatures. The last decade was the warmest on record, and average temperatures have continued to rise (UCAR 2015). Students, as members of society, need a clear understanding of climate change, how it affects the Earth, and the science behind it.

Place-based education

The effects of global warming have been publicly communicated in many ways, often with images of melting polar ice and stranded polar bears. While these images may arouse sympathy, their settings are distant from the daily experience of most of the world's populace. A place-based approach may be more effective in teaching the public--and science students--about climate change science.

Placed-based education grounds learning to the specific region in which the learning takes place (Smith 2002). This approach can allow students to connect to their community within the context of the classroom activity. Collaborating with classmates to explore local, real-life problems, students can develop a stake in contributing to the betterment of their community and neighborhoods (Smith 2007).

Sea-level rise is a significant problem for those living near the coasts. In Florida, the authors' home state, 75% of residents live at or near sea level. Clearly, Florida students, to be informed citizens, need climate change education in their secondary science curriculum. Campbell et al. (2010) found that teachers wish to teach climate change science but often don't know where or how to include it in their curriculum. A possible solution is for scientists and educators to collaborate on a curriculum that addresses climate change (Campbell et al. 2010; Gayford 2002).

With funding from the National Science Foundation and collaboration between scientists and science educators, we have developed place-based curriculum materials that use scientific data and hands-on activities to help students understand how climate change affects their communities and their lives.

Thermal expansion classroom activity

We developed an activity for high school teachers and students in marine sciences classes in the Tampa Bay area, a low-lying coastal region of west central Florida comprising Hillsborough, Pinellas, and Manatee counties. Tourism along the Gulf beaches is a major source of area income. With most of Florida's coastline at or below 3.5 meters in elevation, the Tampa Bay area faces the daunting task of preparing for future sea-level rise caused by global climate change (GCC) (TBRPC 2006).

One of the largest contributors to sea-level rise is the thermal expansion of ocean water due to Earth's rising temperature (USGCRP 2009; IPCC 2013). Students can measure the rate of expansion of water as it warms and calculate how this expansion relates to rising sea levels.

Learning objectives

The goal of this activity is for students to better understand the effects of climate change on the built and natural world, particularly in south Florida. The activity also attempts to motivate students to learn about regional issues (Hallar, McCubbin, and Wright 2011; Theobald 2006). This activity aligns with the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS Lead States 2013) (see box, p. 36).


Other objectives:

* Students learn the relationships between the temperature of water and its volume and between ocean temperature change and changes in sea level.

* Students use a laboratory activity to model the effect of global warming on sea-level rise.

* Students gain an appreciation of why thermal expansion is a concern for them in their local area.

Background preparation

Before the activity, students learn what is meant by global mean sea level and how it is measured and has changed over time and the causes of sea-level change. …

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