Ocean Science in the Classroom

By Lambert, Julie; Sundburg, Suzanne Smith | The Science Teacher, September 2006 | Go to article overview

Ocean Science in the Classroom


Lambert, Julie, Sundburg, Suzanne Smith, The Science Teacher


Byline: Julie Lambert and Suzanne Smith Sundburg

In one form or another, ocean or marine science courses have existed for decades. Although these courses can effectively integrate the sciences in ways that stimulate student curiosity and interest, they have not yet received formal recognition for the role they could play in improving science education for secondary students. In this article, we discuss why ocean science courses are not as prevalent in high schools and, by contrast, why ocean science courses should be taught. Finally, we present a framework and suggested resources to show teachers how they can align ocean science concepts to the national standards and become more experienced in strategies for teaching these concepts.

Why are ocean science courses less prevalent?

Ocean science courses are less prevalent in U.S. high school curricula for several proposed reasons. First, ocean science is a relatively young science compared to other traditional sciences and is not a traditional discipline-based science course. Rather, ocean science is a naturally integrated science that incorporates the biological, chemical, geological, and physical science concepts that scientists must learn in order to understand marine processes and systems. Relatively few undergraduate programs exist in the ocean sciences; therefore, few teachers have bachelor's degrees in the field. Moreover, implementing inquiry-based activities in an integrated science course requires a variety of materials and supplies.

Second, across state school systems and universities there is inconsistency as to whether a high school ocean science course qualifies as a science course requirement for graduation or college admission. This may be, in part, due to ocean science not appearing as a major theme in the National Science Education Standards (NRC 1996) or the Benchmarks for Science Literacy (AAAS 1993).

Also, ocean science is often wrongly perceived as being an "easier" or irrelevant science course focused primarily on marine biology, instead of a course that naturally integrates life and physical science concepts. In a study of the curricula and instructional practices of nine high school marine science teachers, Lambert (2006) found that most of the study's teachers focused more on teaching marine biology, indicating that even teachers often interpret ocean science as marine biology. Two explanations for this focus may be the relatively small number of appropriate high school-level ocean science textbooks and teachers' lack of ocean science content knowledge and experience.

Why should ocean science courses be taught?

Many reasons exist to promote ocean science courses at the high school level. First, ocean science is naturally integrated and addresses many of the content standards in the state and national standards and benchmarks (Figure 1). In addition to providing a broad range of content, ocean science courses also provide a way to connect science ideas in the curriculum. This provides students with an overarching context for studying basic science concepts, which may prove to be motivating to students and increase their participation and learning of science (Cognition and Technology Group at Vanderbilt 1990; Blumenfeld et al. 1991).

Figure 1. Alignment of Standards to ocean science concepts. [Note: This table was developed by Julie Lambert to align ocean science concepts to the National Science Education Standards (NRC 1996). It has been reviewed by teachers, scientists, George DeBoer, Deputy Director of Project 2061, and Sarah Schoedinger of NOAA.]

National Science Education Standards (9-12)

Ocean science concepts

Physical Science (NRC 1996, p. 176)

Structure of atoms

Structure and properties of matter

Chemical reactions

Motions and forces

Conversation of energy and increase in disorder

Interactions of energy and matter

Properties of water: water molecule, polar nature of water, dissolving ability of water, heat properties of water, phases of water and energy, cohesion, surface tension, viscosity, density, pressure, transmission of heat, light, and sound

Periodic table

Dissolved solids and gases

Alkalinity and pH

Biogeochemical cycles

Chemical factors affecting marine life (biochemistry): osmosis, diffusion, salinity, acids/bases, dissolved nutrients, and dissolved gases

Physical factors affecting marine life (biophysics): light, sound, pressure, temperature, buoyancy, and viscosity

Waves and wave phenomena

Tides and the Moon's gravitational effect on oceans

Ocean circulation: surface and deep currents

Life Science (NRC 1996, p. …

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