What’s the big deal about ocean acidification?

Fifth-grade students from an inland community discover a local connection to our ocean

Students assemble a pH scale puzzle.

We have only one ocean and it is inextricably linked to human health, yet research shows most elementary students do not understand the one-ocean concept (Mogias 2019). Additionally, the ocean—and its problems—may seem unrelated to students’ lives even though it provides half of the oxygen we breathe (via plankton); manufactures our weather; supplies food and drinking water; and makes a global economy possible. “Enhancing interactions with the ocean through experiential learning could be the most effective way of improving ocean literacy as well as marine citizen- and stewardship” (Guest et al. 2015). So, we—a literacy consultant and a children’s author—came together to show educators how STEM and language arts could be combined in ocean experiential learning.

In a series of 12 project-based learning lessons, a group of seven fifth-grade students who live 200 miles from the coast explored their personal connections to our ocean. After completing a unit on the role of water in Earth’s surface processes, the students investigated ocean acidification and how this pervasive ocean problem impacts their local community. We had three basic goals for our students:

  • Learn the process of ocean acidification and its impact on the environment.
  • Understand the link between their inland community and the ocean.
  • Form meaningful emotional relationships with the ocean and take action on ocean sustainability.

The following lessons may be scaled up for an entire class. For example, the teacher could work with a rotation of small groups while other students work collaboratively on related tasks. Alternatively, the teacher could provide whole-group focus lessons (or, in some cases, directions) and then confer with small groups as they engage in the conversations and other activities described here.

Engage: Planet Ocean?

We began by engaging students with the ocean to help them develop a fascination with the underwater world. Students received digital access to Planet Ocean: Why We All Need a Healthy Ocean (Newman 2021) and were asked to read independently to obtain and evaluate information by examining the layout, design, narrative, and features including QR codes that link to short helpful videos. We then asked students to think about important points and communicate to classmates why these points were important. While Planet Ocean received a Lexile score of 1030, typically for grades 4 to 6, the book includes different writing and design formats that make the text easier for some learners to comprehend, including narratives about the work of climate activists, detailed photographs, links to videos that support understanding, and diagrams. To meet the needs of diverse groups of students or students with special needs, the teacher might assign specific sections of text or videos instead of the book as a whole, or confer with individuals or small groups as they read more complex parts.

To prepare the group for student-led discussions about what they read, we modeled for students how to prepare for a conversation with their peers. After reading from a short section of the book, Sunday Cummins “thought aloud” about what details she wanted to remember to share while writing a few thoughts on a sticky note. The students followed a similar process, and then shared in small groups.

Sunday Cummins & Patricia Newman, National Science Teaching Association, 19 May 2022. Full article.

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