Ocean acidification: a systems approach to a global problem

In this curriculum module, students in high school life and marine science courses act as interdisciplinary scientists and delegates to investigate how the changing carbon cycle will affect the oceans along with their integral populations.



Students closely model what is occurring in laboratories worldwide, and at ISB through Monica Orellana’s research to analyze the effect CO2 has on ocean chemistry, ecosystems and human societies. Students experiment, analyze public data, and prepare for a mock summit to address concerns. Student groups represent key “interest groups”:

•Developed nations which pollute CO2
•Marine calcifying organisms which are predicted to suffer dramatically
•Marine photosynthesizing organisms, specifically diatoms, which may play a role in CO2 sequestering and will likely increase growth in a high CO­­­2 ­environment
•Developing island nations which largely depend on ecosystem services that will be threatened by ocean acidification

Students design two experiments to observe the effects of CO2 on seawater pH, diatom growth, algal blooms, nutrient availability, and/or shell dissolution.

Students begin the module by critically assessing different news articles. As a class they combine their findings to develop a network diagram in order to identify the key players (or parts/nodes) in this system. They use this to plan their next experimental steps. Students then use inquiry to understand the effects and properties of CO2. They continue by designing a second experiment based on their interest group to further explore how a change in CO2 has impacted their subsystem. Students model collaborative research by designing and completing cohesive sets of experiments that build off others’ experiments. In addition to their own data, students use real-time Puget Sound and worldwide ocean and genetic data to predict the response to further disruptions. In the culminating activity, delegates reconvene to present and discuss their findings in reference to the impact on their ocean network. Recommendations are made for scientists, politicians and people across the world. Students reflect on unanswered questions and on what their individual roles in the networks they have studied are, and how they might change their actions in order to positively impact the network.

To download a one page description of this module, please click here.

Resources for Teachers – Please email Claudia Ludwig at cludwig@systemsbiology.org or call 206-732-1453 for the most current version of the draft materials.

FUNDING: This module has been possible through the National Science Foundation (NSF OCE 0928561) and with leveraged dissemination through NIH/NIGMS. We have also partnered with Sammamish High School in Bellevue, WA and the University of WA to work with high school students in a Project Based Learning Biochemistry class to help build and field test this module.

Institute for Systems Biology, August 2012. Module.


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