We Are All Connected to the Oceans: A Lesson to Help Students Understand the Ways Humans Impact Marine Ecosystems

Students can look at a globe or map and readily see that water dominates our planet. However, do students know that over 70 percent of the earth’s surface is covered by water? Do they realize the importance of the oceans?

Currently, 80 percent of all people live within 60 miles of a seacoast. Yet many adolescents still do not think that the ocean waters impact their lives and vice versa. There are many reasons for this naive thinking. A common one is “I don’t eat seafood so I don’t use ocean resources.” Other reasons can be attributed to lack of a personal connection with the oceans. Some students have never visited oceans and swam in their warm waters.

As educators, one of our goals is to help students understand the importance of their everyday actions.  The National Science Education Standards state that students should have an understanding of human impact on the environment.

To help students identify how humans impact the marine environment, make a personal connection with the oceans, and raise awareness of marine environmental issues, teachers can use this week-long lesson.  This activity will help students think critically within the context of important marine issues.

National Science Education Standards

This lesson closely aligns with three of the Science Content Standards of the National Science Education Standards: Science as Inquiry, Life Science, and Science in Personal and Social Perspectives.

Science as Inquiry: Abilities Necessary to do Scientific Inquiry (Grades 5-8)

  • Use appropriate tools and techniques to gather, analyze, and interpret data.
  • Develop descriptions, explanations, predictions, and models using evidence.
  • Think critically and logically to make the relationships between evidence and explanations.
  • Recognize and analyze alternative explanations and predictions.
  • Communicate scientific procedures and explanations.

Life Science: Populations and Ecosystems (Grades 5-8)

  • Lack of resources and other factors, such as predation and climate, limit the growth of populations in specific niches in the ecosystem.

Science in Personal and Social Perspectives: Natural Hazards (Grades 5-8)

  • Human activities also can induce hazards…. Such activities can accelerate many natural changes.


Engage students in learning about their personal connection with the ocean. Have students act as marine scientists for a week. On day 1, students should read an article/blog post or watch a video clip that discusses current news about the oceans. Students should read different articles and watch different videos. Students should then write a brief “news report” of their own. This report should summarize the article or video that they read or watched.

In their news report, students should alert their audience to daily activities, such as littering or not recycling, that may impact and contribute to changing marine environments.

Here are some ideas for articles and videos:


On day 2 as marine scientists, the students will explore their marine articles and videos in an “environmental summit. ” In small groups, they will share their news reports and discuss the daily activities that they came up with.

Students should then group the activities into categories (i.e., littering and driving separately/not carpooling could be in a category titled “increased pollution”).  Students should determine the relative significance of each activity. Students may wish to use a rating scale to explain the impact (i.e., a rating of 5 would mean the daily activity directly damages the ocean in a negative way and a rating of 1 would mean the activity could potentially harm marine environments). Students will then share their categories and rating scales with the class.  List the categories and activities on the board.

Note — you should see similarities within the groups.  Raise students’ awareness of this and facilitate a class discussion centered around humans impacting marine environments.


On days 3 and 4, students will work in small groups of two to three to create an action plan.  The goal of this action plan will be to raise awareness of marine environmental issues and to identify how humans impact the marine environment.

In this action plan, students should:

  • State and describe why an action plan is needed.
  • Support their claims with real data.
  • Identify five human actions that impact the marine environment.
  • Propose a possible solution and identify steps humans can take to reduce their negative impact on the marine environment.

Evaluate (Assess)

On day 5, students will submit their action plans to the summit leader (the teacher). Students will explain their findings to the class and share their proposed solutions. Students will compare and contrast the various solutions through class discussion. Then students will journal or reflect on their own personal impact and what they can do to lessen this impact.


Middle School Portal 2 (MSP2) provides many great resources focused on the oceans.  For background information, try Earth’s Oceans.  This guide discusses 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  a section on common misconceptions about the oceans and a section about the science standards that the guide connects to.

Even though you might not teach a unit called oceans, the oceans can be used as a context within other units, such as ecosystems, energy transfer, systems thinking, or methods in science.

Another useful resource developed by MSP2  is Ocean Systems.  This guide focuses on earth and physical science, including volcanic island formation and tsunamis; life science concepts, including ocean ecosystems, food webs, and biodiversity; science in personal and social perspectives, including pollution, endangered species and conservation; and related careers.

Students may wish to use visuals to raise awareness. Ecoartspace is an organization that focuses on addressing environmental issues through the visual arts. In addition to their action plans, students can create visual works of art that can be displayed throughout the school to raise awareness.  (You may want to work in collaboration with your school’s art program).

This lesson lends itself to discussing climate change.  These resources will help you have that discussion:

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This post was originally written by Brittany Wall and published March 29, 2010 in the Connecting News to the National Science Education Standards blog. The post was updated 4/9/12 by Jessica Fries-Gaither.