Cutting Edge > Oceanography > Additional Resources > Field Trip Ideas

Introductory Oceanography Field Trips:
Sample learning outcomes and activity ideas

The sample outcomes and activity ideas were compiled by participants at the 2013 Teaching Oceanography workshop Workshop participants created these ideas while taking part in pre- and post-workshop field trips to a number of field sites as well as a field trip to the Aquarium on the Bay (Fisherman's Wharf, San Francisco) and the San Francisco Exploratorium during the workshop.

Other resources available through On the Cutting Edge: Teaching Geoscience in the Field (including defining its place in the curriculum, its benefits, developing skills and habits, and designing field experiences).

Sample Outcomes

After completing a field trip in an introductory oceanography class, students will be able to:

  • Make and record field observations
  • Recognize characteristics of a variety of natural process at work in the field around them
  • Consider important questions that could be answered by scientists working in this environment
  • Consider impacts of human interactions with this environment
  • Recognize the value of working together
  • Recognize the value of engaging in the local environment
  • Identify evidence of human impact on the coastal environment
  • Compare and contrast sand composition and texture at different beaches
  • Describe the differences between description and interpretation
  • Use dichotomous keys to identify organisms that are retrieved from fish trawls, benthic grabs and plankton tows
  • Recognize the oceans as a system
  • Using aerial photographs, locate themselves and different features along a coastline
  • Make and record observations
  • Recognize characteristics of a variety of natural process at work in the ecosystems they observe
  • Consider important questions that could be answered by scientists working in these ecosystems
  • Consider impacts of human interactions with these ecosystems
  • Recognize the value of working together
  • Assess animal behavior using scientific methods
  • Compare the morphology and behaviour of different organisms
  • Understand how adaptation to different ecosystems or ecological modes leads to morphological adaptation.
  • Develop and/or use a dichotomous key

Sample Activities and Questions to Ask Our Students in a Variety of Settings

Locating yourself: Given aerial photographs, locate yourself and different features in your field area (such as coastal headlands and coves)

Making observations with tools (sketchbook; hand lens; knife; bottles; vials; binoculars)

  • Sketch landscape (perhaps at different scales)
  • Make one observation each using each of the five senses. Reconvene to record observations and categorize them (as geology/water movement/biology/chemistry/human interaction with nature)
  • Challenge groups to provide observations for unfilled categories and to link an observation with another from at least one and possibly all other categories
  • An alternative or additional categorization activity is to observe on different temporal and spatial scales.
  • Animal Behavior activities – students can use a focal animal approach, with fixed periods of observations to create time budgets for different species of animals, e.g. for a barnacle.. feeding, being closed up... for a sea otter, swimming in different positions, interacting with conspecifics or other species (if present), apparent playing, feeding, sleeping....for birds on exhibit.. swimming, feeding interacting with conspecifics or other species, sitting or standing, preening, flying, nest building, etc. This can be evaluated in terms of sex, species, and to even identify patterns of dominance in social groups.
  • In this quarry or cliff face, there are two rock types. Sketch them with a scale. What are the primary differences between them?

Coastal processes

  • Beach: What direction is the wind and swell? What is the wave period?
  • Look at the sand – describe its color, size, sorting, and texture. Is it the same everywhere? Where is it from? What affects it? Where will it go next?
    • Compare and contrast the physical and chemical properties of sands on three beaches.
  • Sketch a profile of the beach. What does it tell you about the wave energy?
  • Look down at the surf zone. Which rocks are in place? Which rocks were brought in from elsewhere? Why were those rocks brought in?
  • Look at the sloped area above the beach. Where is bedrock that is in place? Where do you find material that is no longer in place? - With no further action by people, what do you think this area will look like after a few years of heavy winter rain?
  • What is the tidal cycle at this location? What is the tide height now, where you are? Can you see signs of animals or plants that will be submerged some of the day? How long? If they are out of the water now, what adaptations do they seem to have that lets them survive the dry conditions and higher temperatures?
  • Will this beach/coastline dissipate or concentrate storm surge?
  • Erosion, weathering, and mass movement
    • Can you find any landslides? (new or old)
      • If so, how do you recognize them? (Where do you see evidence of recent/older movement on this slope? Make a sketch of an example of each.)
      • How big are they? (And what are some good techniques for determining scale)?
      • Why are they here? What contributed?
    • Do you see any evidence of erosion? Where? What are the causes? What are some local sources of erosion?
    • Do you see any evidence of weathering? Where? What are the causes? Do some rocks weather more than others? Describe those. Why do you think this happens?

Human interactions and impacts

    • Identify a natural and an anthropogenic feature
    • Draw sketches of human-made structures in the area (drains, rock walls). What is their purpose?
    • Class debate: sustainable fisheries... Different kinds – which is best?
    • Sustainable fisheries and seafood: Where is it from? How is it caught? What are the consequences of not knowing. Possible activities: role playing in a restaurant finding out these answers. HW: ask where fish come from? from 2 local markets or restaurants and share info later in class.
    • What is one thing you can do to reduce your impact on the ocean?

Marine ecosystems (intertidal, benthic, pelagic – through field trip, aquarium, or cruise)


  • Do you notice horizontal color stripes in the intertidal? If so, what causes them? Why?
  • Given a dichotomous key, identify 10 different fish collected during cruise or observed in an aquarium or tidepools
  • Reviewing a variety of organisms that live in a similar environment, create a dichotomous key
  • Camouflage: identify and explain the function of camouflage used by organisms in a tank or in a tidepool.
  • Niche adaptations: compare and contrast the adaptations of various organisms in different niches: tidal zone, sedimentary benthic, rocky benthic.
  • Aquarium:
    • select a favorite tank and list the organisms present, then group the listed organisms by categories (using own scheme). List the organisms in a second tank, and apply the classification scheme to it. Revise the classification scheme as needed.
    • How do you think this tank would differ in behaviors at night?
    • Observe and attempt to distinguish between natural and artificial processes/behaviors/features in one or more tanks. How could one verify that the process/behavior/feature is natural?
    • Sketch three ocean organisms from 3 different phyla. Include the name of the organism, a scale bar for each sketch.
    • Explore the way that homologous structures are adapted in bony and cartilaginous fish to meet different ecological needs: draw or describe three species of each type of fish, and identify ways that fins, mouth, etc. are changed among different species to reflect their ecological needs. Also, look at the common features of bony fish vs. cartilaginous fish and speculate about why the bony fish were able to diversity into so many more different body plans.
    • Choose three animals [CHOOSE ONE: fish, mollusk, arthropod] that live in three different habitats [FOR EXAMPLE: kelp forest, sandy seafloor, tropical reef...] and for each one, describe an adaptation [FOR EXAMPLE: behavior, body part, color] that helps it survive in that habitat.
    • Look for and correctly name different feeding styles. Which organisms use these?
    • Find at least six different types of caudal fin (tail) on fish in the aquarium. Sketch the different shapes. What do these shapes suggest about the lifestyles of these fish?
    • Observing the tentacles on the jellies from coastal waters, what do you notice about length and the type of waters in which the jellies live? What would be the benefits of each? Challenges?
    • The reported worldwide expansion of jellies is an interesting topic for discussion and can be developed with aquarium trips since, now, there are so many aquaria that have jellyfish exhibits. There are some very interesting papers discussing the actual data that support (or do not support) this perceived rise in the abundance of gelatinous jellyfish and the possible role of humans, so, overall this topic is pretty fun and rich with potential. See Condon et al, 2012, Bioscience 62:160 and Lucas et al, 2013, PNAS 110:1000-05.

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