MSP:MiddleSchoolPortal/Earth's Oceans

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Resource Guide to Earth's Oceans

Whether you live on the gentle rolling plains of the Midwest or the glittering desert sands of the Southwest – no matter where in the world you are – your life is intimately tied to our planet's oceans. Even if you've never gone to a beach to watch a sunrise or sunset or to ride the waves, the oceans probably affected you as recently as this morning – when you may have checked the weather and decided what to wear.

Cool ocean image

The oceans influence the world's climate by storing vast amounts of solar energy and distributing that energy around the planet through currents and accompanying atmospheric winds. Dramatic weather events like hurricanes originate at sea, and the oceans also influence long-term conditions such as average daily temperature and rainfall. These factors in turn affect the variety and volume of crops that can be grown and the number of fish that can be caught. In fact, the oceans affect all life on our planet.

This guide focuses on the oceans as a part of the Earth system: the link between oceans and climate; tsunamis; life science concepts such as ocean ecosystems, food webs, and biodiversity; real data – both sources of and projects that use real data; and related careers. There is also a section on the misconceptions commonly surrounding ocean concepts and finally the National Science Education Standards that these resource connect to. So even though you might not teach a unit called oceans, the oceans can be used as a context within an existing unit, such as ecosystems, energy transfer, systems thinking, or methods in science.

Background Information for Teachers

Some of these resources are aimed at high school students, college students, or teachers. All afford the opportunity to increase content knowledge and develop an understanding of the common misconceptions that student hold and how to uncover and change those misconceptions. Before we get into those, lets turn to the NSDL Strand Map Service. These maps illustrate connections between concepts and across grade levels. Clicking on a concept within the maps will show NSDL resources relevant to the concept, as well as information about related AAAS Project 2061 Benchmarks and National Science Education Standards. Move the pink box in the lower right hand corner of the page to see the grades 6-8 learning goals. while no single map discusses "Oceans" exclusively, there are maps which capture related concepts in various contexts, including Changes in the Earth's Surface, Weather and Climate, and Use of Earth's Resources. Since wise stewardhip of the oceans requires worldwide collaboration, we have included below an image of the grades 6-8 portion only of the Global Interdependence map under the heading Human Society. Boxes that appear to be floating unconnected are connected to concepts in grade bands above or below grades 6-8. To view the entire K-12 map see K-12 Global Interdependence.


Common Misconceptions about Oceans This article from the Polar Oceans issue of the free online magazine, Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears, explores misconceptions that students may hold about ocean characteristics, the global ocean system, sea water, ocean life, sea ice and icebergs, and humans and the oceans. The article references a larger document with 110 common ocean-related misconceptions. In addition, the article discusses how to assess student understanding and provides links to concept flow diagrams from the Ocean Literacy Network as well as five lessons and activities that can promote correct understanding.

Misconceptions About the Ocean This brief but enlightening pdf is a perfect jumping-off point. The author draws on his experience teaching nonscience majors at a college. After a brief background he divides the misconceptions into categories, including Waves/Tides/Currents; Geographic/ Bathymetric/Global; Weather/Climate; Chemical; Biological/Organismal; Marine Mammals; Seafood; and Pollution. You will probably find some things on the list even you were unaware of, because our teacher education preparation often lacks thorough schooling in oceanography, among other science-specific disciplines. Becoming aware of misconceptions among college students informs our instruction as we construct our middle school science curriculum.

Chapter 15: Earth and Space Starting Points This 47-page chapter is from a publication by Dennis and Cynthia Sunal called Science in the Elementary and Middle School. Because the chapter is in pdf form, you can scroll to the parts of particular interest. Pedagogically (in addition to your uncovering misconceptions through pre-assessment), this source reveals what students probably ought to know in order to maximize outcomes. The chapter first presents an overview of basic content needed by all students. Second, the chapter presents the basic ideas in one area in earth and space science -- the earth in space -- for an elementary and middle school science curriculum. Next, alternative conceptions in the area of earth in space are provided to demonstrate specific needs that students have. Instructional strategies are discussed for earth in space difficulties to illustrate general strategies for earth and space science concepts. These specific alternative conceptions are followed by a discussion of alternative conceptions in the more general earth and space science areas relating to the earth’s oceans and atmosphere, space science, geology, the solar system, stars, and the universe. Following each general earth and space science alternative conception, examples of discrepant event activities and learning cycle lesson plans are provided. These discussions provide a foundation for teachers who wish to plan lessons that assist students in their learning of earth and space science concepts.

Oceans and Climate

Ocean Temperatures and Climate Patterns Interactions between Earth's atmosphere and oceans drive weather and climate patterns. Although these interactions and patterns are complex, they are also predictable. This animation from The New Media Studio explains precipitation patterns by illustrating how differences in ocean surface temperatures create wind, and how wind patterns can in turn affect ocean surface temperatures.

Great Ocean Conveyor Belt – Part I The oceans are in constant flux. The movement of ocean water is readily observable in the rise and fall of the tides and the continual lapping of waves along the coastlines of continents and islands. Less obvious is the network of currents that constantly circulates ocean water from one side of the globe to another. This image from GRID-Arendal illustrates the path of the great ocean conveyor belt, also known as the thermohaline conveyor.

Great Ocean Conveyor Belt – Part II A very important but little-known network of currents constantly circulates the water in Earth's oceans. What's more, these currents redistribute heat, moving it from the tropics toward the poles, and keeping some regions far more habitable than they would be otherwise. In this audio segment from National Public Radio, scientists discuss the hypothesis that global warming might be causing the Great Ocean Conveyor to slow, and may ultimately cause it to shut down.

Ocean and Climate This web page, one of NASA's fact sheets, describes the role of the oceans, clouds, and aerosols in moderating climate. It describes how the oceans interact with the atmosphere, physically exchanging heat, water, and momentum. This site also explains the chemical link between the ocean and the atmosphere. The emphasis is on the ocean's ability to store and release water vapor and carbon dioxide, both of which contribute to the greenhouse effect. The site also describes the efforts of scientists to construct computer models of the interactions between the atmosphere and ocean and to perform space-based oceanography using the Earth Observing System (EOS).


Can It Happen Here? From the U.S. Geological Survey, this page addresses the question with respect to specific U.S. locales.

Tsunami Forecasting This page originates from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and provides information regarding the technologies used in predicting tsunamis.


Ocean Planet: Smithsonian This is a list of species associated with the deep ocean. The genus and species are given for each organism as well as a brief description, and for most a photo. Links to additional resources are found on the page too. An excellent resource for a structured student research assignment.

Exploring the Arctic Seafloor Take a virtual expedition deep under the Arctic ice along with a research team from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in this interactive activity adapted from NOVA scienceNOW. Through two collections of photos and video footage, learn about the obstacles the team faced at the frozen sea surface, as well as the geological and biological discoveries deep down near the Gakkel Ridge, an 1,100-mile-long section of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. There, volcanic activity generates new ocean crust, and the combination of chemical reactions and lack of sunlight supports a web of unusual life forms.

Studying the Antarctic Sea Floor In this video segment adapted from, ecologist Stacy Kim describes her interest in studying the living things that inhabit the seafloor beneath Antarctica's icy surface. Dr. Kim talks about her experiences diving in the frigid but clear waters and expresses her passion for working in a relatively simple and undisturbed ecosystem. She also describes a remotely operated recording and mapping vehicle called SCINI that opens up to exploration areas of the seafloor that are inaccessible to human divers. Among its many advantages, SCINI can enter the water through a much smaller hole in the ice than a human requires.

Deep-Sea Vents and Life's Origins Less than a century ago, people expected the ocean floor to be as featureless as the surface of the water above. However, underwater explorations revealed quite the opposite: towering mid-oceanic ridges and deep ocean trenches. This video segment adapted from NOVA reveals the unexpectedly rich ecosystems researchers found when they looked more closely at the seafloor near mid-ocean ridges.

Coral Reefs Faced With Extinction? Built over millions of years, coral reefs are home to more than 25 percent of marine species, making them the most biologically diverse of marine ecosystems.

Deep Sea Thinking: Exploring the World’s Ocean This episode from the Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears podcast series includes an interview in which Dr. Chris Massell Symons of NOAA shares how scientists are exploring the depths of the seas to uncover their secrets. It also includes a fun song to help students learn about the global ocean system.

Polar Oceans

Poles Apart: A Tale of Two Oceans This article from the Polar Oceans issue of Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears identifies similarities and differences of the Arctic and Southern Oceans in terms of geography, characteristics, currents, sea ice, and marine species. It includes 4 links to resources for further research.

Lessons and Activities

Life Science

Ocean Observations Biodiversity Video This four-minute video originates at Census for Marine Life. It begins with compelling photos and this question, "What are the consequences for knowing so little about the biodiversity of life in the oceans and its ties to the health of the planet?" An excellent hook. Prepare students by having them respond in writing to a couple of questions before viewing the video. They should then record a few notes relating to the questions during the video and be prepared to discuss how their initial responses compare to their modified responses. For example, students could respond to

1. On a scale of 1-10, how much do oceanographers know about ocean systems? 1 being "very little" and 10 being "pretty much everything." What is the basis for your response?

2. How do you think oceanographers and marine biologists obtain information/observations about ocean systems? Be very specific.

3. How would knowing all there is to know about ocean systems be helpful?

Secrets of the Ocean Realm These science activities, developed for use with students in grades 5-7 (with extensions for lower and higher grades), investigate such topics as oceanography, marine biology, ecology, physics, conservation, and scuba diving. Each activity contains a set of objectives, background information, target teaching level, a list of materials, procedures, follow-up evaluation, and some additional web references.

Shark! Teacher Guide This 26-page pdf contains several classroom activities for grades 4-8. After students learn about shark anatomy and natural history, they can learn about shark families through use of a dichotomous key. The objectives of the Catch of the Day activity include simulating fishing techniques, exploring processes that result in bycatch, and learning why conservation is important and how it can be done.

Coral Reef Watch Coral reefs are beautiful and fragile. But what is their importance to the larger ocean community? Here are seven well-organized lessons for grades 4-7 from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

For Younger Students

Hands-On Lessons and Activities About Oceans This article from the Polar Oceans issue of the free online magazine, Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears, links to lessons and activities about oceans, waves and currents, marine animals and adaptations, ocean conservation, and ocean-related science, technology, and careers. While most of the lessons are written for elementary students, many can be modified to be used in the middle school classroom.

A Whale of an Ocean This informational text gives students an opportunity to read about blue whales and a food chain in the Southern Ocean. The text is available at three grade bands (K-1, 2-3, and 4-5) but will engage middle school students as well. The text is available in text-only, illustrated book, and electronic book formats. Related science and literacy activities are included in the article.

Polar Oceans: Virtual Bookshelf This article from the free online magazine, Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears, lists high-quality children’s literature about oceans. Some titles will be engaging and appropriate for middle school students as well.

Performance Assessments: A Marine Example This article from the Polar Oceans issue of the free online magazine, Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears, describes a performance assessment in which students take on the role of a marine biologist who has discovered a new organism and participate in a mock marine biology convention.

As Big as the Ocean: Creating Murals This article from the Polar Oceans issue of Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears discusses how murals can be used as an engaging addition to a unit on oceans.

Using Real Data

The Stowaway Adventure This multidisciplinary Internet-based learning experience has been designed to expose students to real world problem solving through unique uses of instructional technologies. In particular, students will use real time data from the Internet to track a real ship at sea, determine its destination and predict when it will arrive. In addition, they will have the opportunity to monitor the weather conditions at sea and predict when rough weather might impact on the ship's arrival time.

Gulf Stream Voyage The Gulf Stream Voyage is an online multidisciplinary project which utilizes both real time data and primary source materials to help guide students to discover the science and history of the Gulf Stream. Students will investigate this great ocean current, how it affects the Atlantic Ocean and some of mankind's experiences dealing with it. This voyage includes activities for marine science, earth science, chemistry, physics, biology, math, history and language arts.

Tsunami Surge Tsunami Surge is a project for students in grades 6-12 that uses real-time data sources from the internet to help students answer these questions. They will be challenged to think critically and creatively in their efforts to understand, predict, and guard against this powerful force of nature.

Catch a Wave Catch A Wave is an educational project for students, grades 6 - 12, that uses online real time data to guide student discovery of the causes and effects of ocean waves and tides.

Sources of Real Data

Goddard Institute of Space Studies: Data and Images On this web site, the GISS provides data sets and images of earth and the atmosphere. Users can access earth observation data such as storms, aerosols, temperature, global climate modeling, and radiation.

SMARTR: Virtual Learning Experiences for Students

Visit our student site SMARTR to find related virtual learning experiences for your students! The SMARTR learning experiences were designed both for and by middle school aged students. Students from around the country participated in every stage of SMARTR’s development and each of the learning experiences includes multimedia content including videos, simulations, games and virtual activities. Visit the virtual learning experience on Oceans and Weather.


The FunWorks Visit the FunWorks STEM career website for youth to browse science-related careers, including meteorologist, environmental scientist, and marine biologist.

Ocean Careers Browse information, education requirements, and salaries of over 50 ocean-associated careers.

Uncharted Territory on the Arctic Seafloor

Read about a paleo-oceanographer’s work using foraminifera to reconstruct past climates and chart the Arctic sea floor.

Latest Science News from the New York Times

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National Science Education Standards Connections

These excerpts from the National Science Education Standards relate to the study of oceans and climate in middle school.

Earth and Space Science - As a result of their activities in grades 5-8, all students should develop an understanding of:

• Structure of the earth system

• Global patterns of atmospheric movement influence local weather. Oceans have a major effect on climate, because water in the oceans holds a large amount of heat

• Earth in the solar system

• The sun is the major source of energy for phenomena on the earth's surface, such as growth of plants, winds, ocean currents, and the water cycle

In addition, physical Science concepts of properties and changes in matter relate to a study of oceans when one considers things like the water cycle, rock cycle and other abiotic factors of ocean systems. Life Science concepts in structure and function in living systems, reproduction, behavior, and populations and ecosystems are integral to oceans. Science and Technology concepts emerge in the tools and techniques scientists use to learn more about ocean life and relationships among the biosphere and hydrosphere.

Science in Personal and Social Perspectives concepts of (a) populations, resources and environments and (b) science and technology in society are related to ocean studies as well. For example, tsunamis cause millions of dollars in damage and lost life. New technologies are enabling more accurate forecasting, but at what cost? Who decides where these technologies should be employed and to what extent? Issues in pollution and fishing should be considered. How can the international community be counted on to act responsibly? What can individuals do to help?

Read the entire National Science Education Standards online for free - - or register to download the free pdf. The content standards are found in Chapter 6 -

Author and Copyright

Kimberly Lightle is director and science resource specialist for the MSP2 project. Post a comment on Kim's MSP2 wall - Jessica Fries-Gaither is a science resource specialist and the project director of Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears. Post a comment on Jessica's MSP2 wall - You can also email comments to

Connect with colleagues at our social network for middle school math and science teachers at

Copyright October 2009 - The Ohio State University. Last updated August 24, 2010. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation Grant No. 0840824. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.