Innovation in the Ocean

Apr. 14, 2011 | 0 Comments | Science | 5-8 | Energy

Lesson Steps

Warm-up: What is the Ocean?

1. Begin this lesson by asking students to spend five minutes drawing a picture of what they understand as the “the ocean.”

2. Have students share their drawings with the class and explain the rationale of their portrayal. Next, ask students the following questions:

a) What percentage of the Earth’s surface is covered by ocean? (Have all students raise their hands. Tell students to keep their hands up if they think it is 40%, 50%, etc. Give students the answer once all hands have been lowered.) 71% of the Earth’s surface (the outer layer of land and water) is covered by ocean.[1]

b) In terms of volume, what percentage of the Earth’s living space – the places where organisms can survive – is made up of ocean? (Have all students raise their hands. Tell students to keep their hands up if they think it is 40%, 50%, etc. Give students the answer once all hands have been lowered.) 99% of the living space on planet Earth is covered by ocean.[2]

c) How much volume do you think the ocean can actually hold? 320 million cubic miles.[3] In comparison, the volume of the Earth’s moon is the same as the volume of the Pacific Ocean. Another way to look at it is the following: Lake Michigan can hold 70 billion swimming pools, and the Atlantic can hold 34,343.4 Lake Michigans – that’s 2.4 quadrillion swimming pools!

d) How deep is the deepest point of the ocean? About 6.9 miles, the Mariana Trench off the coast of Guam, which is a mile taller than Mount Everest in comparison.[4]

e) When did life begin in the ocean? About 3.5 billion years ago.[5]

3. Wrap up by emphasizing how large and old the ocean is. Scientists estimate that there are between 1 and 10 million species that we have not yet discovered in the ocean.[6] Ask students what kind of animals they think might be in the unknown waters that we have not discovered. Answers will vary but may include giant snails, miniature whales, etc.


Activity One: Timeline of Ocean Usage

1. Help students visualize the amount of time the ocean has existed with a spiral timeline around the classroom. Students will gain a personal understanding of the age of the ocean by participating in a visualization activity in which they will use a ball of string to create a “living timeline” of the ocean’s history. Each student will contribute to the creation of a spiral representing the passage of time.

a) Have all students stand up and move their desks to the middle of the room. Next, have one student hold the ball of string and stand in a corner.

b) The next student takes the ball of string, leaving the first student with the tail, and walks to the next corner. Keeping the string tight and turned at the corner, the subsequent student takes the ball and walks to the third corner, and the next student continues along the perimeter to the fourth corner.

c) Have students continue the spiral in this fashion until the string is about 146 feet long. This could either be measured beforehand, or can be estimated by the dimensions of the classroom.

d) Once the spiral is complete, explain to the students that one inch represents 2,000,000 years, and the first person holding the string represents when life began in the ocean 3.5 billion years ago, and the last 1/50 of an inch of the end of the string represents when humans began using the ocean.

2. Continue the activity with the string and keep students in place. Explain that the class will now zoom in on the 1/50th inch, and repeat the activity with each inch of string now representing 22 years. Have the students that are not holding the string place a clothespin to mark each point in the timeline. Use a tape measurer for the longer lengths and a small ruler for the shorter lengths.

a) The first student holding on to the string is now 38,000 BCE: the earliest record of humans eating fish as part of their regular diet, which was in China.[7]

b) 114 feet later (use the dimensions of the room, the tiles or a tape measurer to find this length), put a clothespin to mark 8,000 BCE: the first instance of humans making rafts for fishing.[8]

c) 11 feet later, put a clothespin to mark 5,000 BCE: earliest boat found that was built for trade.[9]

d) 17 feet later, mark 431 BCE: the beginning of the Peloponnesian War, which is the first war to rely heavily on a navy.[10]

e) 9 feet later, mark 1850: humans begin using the ocean as a dumping ground for sewage, industrial waste and garbage.[11]

f)  ½ inch later, mark 1864: the first time a submarine successfully sank its target, which was in the U.S. Civil War.[12]

g) ¾ inch later, mark 1882: the first hydroelectric power plant was put to use, in Appleton, Wisconsin.[13]

h) 2 ½ inches later, mark 1939: the first “Self-Contained Underwater Oxygen Breathing Apparatus” – or SCUBA – was invented.[14]

i)  1 ¼ inches later, mark 1966: La Rance Tidal Barrage, the first tidal power plant, was built near St. Malo, France.[15]

j) 1/10 inch later, mark 1968: the Deep Sea Drilling Project was created, and humans began to drill for oil in the ocean.[16]

k) ½ inch later, mark 1978: the U.S. government began experimenting with algae as a potential fuel source.[17]

l) ½ inch later, mark 1991: Europe establishes the world’s first offshore wind farm.[18]

3. Have students sit back down and hand out or show on a projector Reproducible #1 – A Brief Timeline of Humans and the Ocean to ensure that students properly understood the previous information, and so they can visualize the activity in another format. Discuss the timeline with the class and ask them the following questions:

a) Do you notice a shift in how people use the ocean? Used to be primarily for food and transportation, and now is being used for energy as well.What other ways could we use the ocean in the future?Answers will vary.


Activity Two: Energy Innovations in the Ocean

1. Remind students of the vastness of the ocean and now introduce the concept of the ocean’s energy potential. Show students the video Harnessing the Power of the Gulf Stream for Alternative Ocean Energy Power[19] and ask the following questions after the video:[20]

a) What are some of the challenges this video demonstrates? It is very difficult to keep equipment at the bottom of the ocean: there is high pressure, marine life ruins the equipment, underwater storms can destroy it, etc.

b) What are the potential benefits of harnessing this power? Renewable, clean and cheaper energy; huge amounts of energy in the Gulf Stream alone.

2. Explain to students that the technology shown is only one way to harness the energy of the ocean. Either hand out or use a projector to show students Reproducible #2 – Introduction to Alternative Energy in the Ocean. Go through each method of harnessing energy from the ocean to give them an overview of the different technologies.

3. Hand out Reproducible #3 – Alternate Energy in the Ocean and divide the class into five groups. Assign each group a different method of harnessing the ocean’s energy. Then, have each student research their method for homework and subsequently answer the questions on the worksheet. Emphasize that the students must go beyond what was shown in class.

4. The following day, have each group meet for 20-25 minutes to finalize the answers on their worksheets and to make a visual representation of their method. Small models are encouraged, though students can also create a diagram. Give students access to paper, scissors, glue, cardboard, Styrofoam and any other materials that would help them create the model.

5. Each group will present their method and visual representation for about 5 minutes. After each group has presented, lead a class discussion focused on which method seemed the most appealing. Ask students to compare and contrast each technology.


Activity Three: Ecosystems

1. Now that students understand the potential for harnessing energy from the ocean, it is important for them to realize that we must be careful in doing so. In this activity, students will create their own model ecosystems in order to demonstrate how each organism is part of an intricate web of organisms and also performs a certain role, or “job,” within its ecosystem. Supervise the students as they handle the guppies and snails, but allow them to create the ecosystems on their own. Once the lesson plan is over, keep the jars in the classroom so students can continue to observe their ecosystem. Another option is also to combine the smaller ecosystems into a larger aquarium ecosystem for the whole class to maintain and monitor. However, do not allow students to release any part of their eco-systems into the wild as this could cause damage to the ecosystem. The materials for this activity can be commonly found at a local pet supply store.

2. Ask students for examples of how humans can negatively influence the ocean. Using a projector, show the pictures in Reproducible #4 – Photos of Humans Harming the Ocean Ecosystem for each example listed.

a)  Overfishing: 85% of our fish stocks are either fully exploited (no room for expansion), over exploited, depleted, recovering from depletion.[21] As a consequence, this affects not only the fish, but the entire ecosystem, such as larger mammals and birds that rely on these fish for food.

b) Destroying coral reefs: Humans have destroyed more than 35 million acres of coral reefs. Global warming has risen the ocean’s temperatures, and in some areas this has led to 90% death of coral by causing coral bleaching. Coral bleaching is the result of the coral responding to stress, and temperature change is the most common trigger. Increased solar irradiance, acidification, starvation through a decline of zooplankton, increased sedimentation often due to runoff, wind, low tide air exposure and cyanide fishing are also stress factors for coral. Overfishing greatly reduces the numbers of plant-eating fish, which causes the reefs to be overrun with seaweed. Other damaging threats to coral include: pollution, research diving, ocean acidification, invasive species, and sea level rise.[22] Coral reefs are home to more than 25% of all marine life, fish rely on coral reefs for protection, breeding grounds and nursing grounds.[23]

c) Oil spills: Oil spills drastically affect marine ecosystems and kill many organisms.

d) What are other activities from your own community that might damage oceans? Buying fish that was obtained through unsustainable methods; importing exotic fish damages the eco- systems[24]; to contributing to global warming makes the ocean’s temperatures and levels rise. Other activities in our own communities that might negatively affect the ocean are polluting, in general. Even if the pollution occurs far from the ocean, it could still wind up in the ocean. Getting our oil from offshore drilling sites or from ships that put pollutants in the oceans, also might contribute to damaging the ocean.  

3. Students will now examine how organisms in the ocean are connected by creating their own ecosystem with plants, guppies and snails. Ask students if they know the definition of an ecosystem. A system formed by the balanced interaction of a community of organisms with their environment, which in turn effects all other neighboring environments.

4. Hand out Reproducible #5 – Create Your Own Ecosystem. Read the introduction to the worksheet together and ask students if they have any questions.

5. Divide students into groups and divide materials equally according to the directions on Reproducible #5 – Create Your Own Ecosystem.With close teacher supervision, allow each group to work through the directions to create their own ecosystems. 

6. After they complete the activity, ask students to work as a group to answer the questions on Reproducible # 6 – Create Your Own Ecosystem Questions.

7. Review answers with students with Reproducible #7 – Create Your Own Ecosystem Answer Key, making sure to explain that the ecosystems students made are tiny models that can help us understand the ocean. Just like in the vast ocean waters, every organism plays an important role. If humans continue to degrade the ocean ecosystem, the well-being of the many organisms that live in the ocean or depend on the ocean could be drastically harmed, including ourselves.


Wrap Up: What Do You Think?

1. Lead a discussion by asking the following questions, keeping track of the answers on the board:

a) What are the benefits of getting our energy from the ocean? Clean energy; reduce our dependence on oil; renewable; lots of opportunities; etc.

b) What are the drawbacks? Expensive; could harm environment.

c)  Evaluate the pros and cons on the board. What do you think? Should we try to use energy from the ocean? If so, what and why? If not, why not? Answers will vary.



1. Build an aquaponics system in the classroom to show how we can use water and the ocean ecosystem in agriculture as well.[25] Note: One should receive proper permission to perform such an activity on school grounds.

2. Build a hydroelectric generator in the classroom.[26] Note: One should receive proper permission to perform such an activity on school grounds.



At the end of this lesson plan, students will demonstrate knowledge concerning several technologies and their potential for harnessing energy from the ocean, including the intricacy and delicacy of such efforts in relation to the health of the ocean’s ecosystem. Further, students will have critically considered the benefits and drawbacks of using the ocean as a source of energy. In addition, students will have created their own ecosystems to model the fragility of the ocean and its delicate functionality.


[1]“Ocean Facts.” See the Sea. Retrieved 28 January 2011 from

[2]“NASA Oceanography.” National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Retrieved 4 March 2011 from

[3]"The Water Cycle: Water Storage in Oceans, from USGS Water Science for Schools." USGSGeorgia Water Science Center- Home Page. Web. 04 Mar. 2011.

[4]“Ocean Facts.” See the Sea. Retrieved 28 January 2011 from

[5]“The Ocean Over Time.” Smithsonian: National Museum of Natural History. Retrieved 28 January 2011 from

[6]WoRMS - World Register of Marine Species. Web. 04 Mar. 2011.

[7]Hu Yaowu, Hong Shang, and Trinkaus Erik. "Stable Isotope Dietary Analysis of the Tianyuan 1 Early Modern Human." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 106.27 (2009): 10971-0974. PubMed Central. Web. 4 Mar. 2011.

[8]Lawler, Andrew. “Report of Oldest Boat Hints at Early Trade Routes.” Science 269.5573 (2002): 1791-1793. Retrieved 26 January 2011 from


[10]Hooker, Richard. “The Peloponnesian War.” WashingtonState University. Retrieved 26 January 2011 from

[11]Engler, R.M.; Saunders, L.; and Wright, Thomas. (1991). "Environmental Effects of Aquatic Disposal of Dredged Material." Environmental Professional 13:317–325.

[12]"Housatonic." Naval History and Heritage Command. Web. 04 Mar. 2011.  

[13]Cole, Joe. “Hydroelectric Power – Water Power – Micro Hydro Systems.” Retrieved 26 January 2011 from

[14]"History of Scuba." ShepherdUniversityPersonal Webpages. Web. March 4, 2011.  

[15]Clark, Pete, Rebecca Klossner, and Lauren Kologe. Tidal Power. Rep. Web. March, 4 2011.  

[16]Rubanik, N.K. “Deep Sea Drilling in the Oceans: History and Potentials (to 40th Anniversary of the International Ocean Drilling Program).” Stratigraphy and Geological Correlation 16.6 (2008): 678-682. Retrieved 26 January 2011 from

[17]Universityof Virginia. "Algae: Biofuel Of The Future?." ScienceDaily 19 August 2008. 4 March 2011

[18]Rock, Mary and Parsons, Laura. “Offshore Wind Energy.” Environmental and Energy Study Institute. Retrieved 28 January 2011.

[19]“Harnessing the Power of the Gulf Stream for Alternative Ocean Energy Power.” The Science Channel, 2008. Retrieved March 5, 2011 from Enterprise Florida:

[20]“Harnessing the Power of the Gulf Stream for Alternative Ocean Energy.” Centerof Excellencein Ocean Energy Technology. Video. Retrieved 2 February 2011 from

[21]“The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture: 2010.” Food and Agriculture Organization fo the United Nations. Retrieved March 4, 2011 from

[22] “Human Impacts on Coral Reefs of Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Revealed.” National Science Foundation. Retrieved 18 March 2011 from

[23]“Coral Reefs: Tropical Rainforests of the Sea.” National Parks Conservation Association. Retrieved 9 February 2011 from

[24] “Coral Reefs.” AmericanUniversity Washington Collegeof Law. Retrieved 18 March 2011 from

[25]“Constructing a Classroom Aquaponic System.” Play with Water. Retrieved 28 January 2011 from

[26]“Build Your Own Hydroelectric Generator.” Green Leaning. Retrieved 28 January 2011 from