Diversity of Marine Life

David W. Kobilka, Central Lakes College-Brainerd
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In this project, students perform library research on an assigned marine animal, create a formatted poster of their topic, and share with their classmates what they've learned in a poster session, conducted in the way of poster sessions at science conferences. Afterward, students complete a written assignment where they are asked to reflect on their experience as a participant in a community of science students, their focused learning on their own marine animal, their larger learning about the diversity of marine life from their poster session participation, and what it implies about the intrinsic value of the ocean realm, and the need for conservation.

The outcomes for this assignment are aligned with course-specific outcomes articulated in the Minnesota Transfer Curriculum. They are:
  • Synthesize central concepts from assigned readings of scientific literature in written assignments.
  • Discuss/compare characteristics of diverse environments in the context of ocean science.
  • Interpret data generated by oceanographic techniques, and present written and oral summaries of their findings.
  • Explain the basic structure and function of the ocean realm, the impact of humans on it, and the impact of the ocean realm on humans.

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This assignment is used in an undergraduate, introductory non-lab oceanography course.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

By the time this assignment is given, students should be proficient in,
  • Reading and understanding scientific literature.
  • Baseline numeracy – i.e. orders of magnitudes and the ability to translate scientific notation to standard notation and back.
  • The conceptual underpinnings of biological oceanography: ocean population dynamics, trophic relationships, biomass, classification of marine environments, adaptive strategies, symbiosis, and the taxonomic system of biological classification.
  • Reading, understanding, and creating maps, sketches, graphs, etc.

How the activity is situated in the course

This project is assigned within 4 weeks of the end of the semester, with the final poster session taking place on the very last day of class. The poster they make for this assignment is the second poster they have done. They are expected to build on their lessons from the first poster project earlier in the semester.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

In this project students demonstrate their ability to,
  • Communicate their knowledge of the anatomy, physiology, behavior, and adaptive strategies of a marine animal.
  • Create an effective scientific poster as a tool for communication.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Students will,
  • Synthesize central concepts from readings of scientific literature in a written assignment (poster).
  • Infer the intrinsic value of the ocean realm, its diversity and the need for conservation.

Other skills goals for this activity

Students will,
  • Interpret their own findings orally, and visually on an effective scientific poster.
  • Follow prescribed formatting recommendations for creating an effective scientific poster.
  • Prepare in advance an electronic version of their poster, using MS Power Point as the poster design tool.

Description and Teaching Materials

This multi-step project develops over a series of several weeks and culminates with a poster session on the last day of class. It begins with the marine life section of an introductory oceanography course about 4 weeks from the end of the semester with passing out the student handout for the Diversity of Marine Life Poster Project (file attached). This handout describes the steps of the project and the specifications that the participants are required to follow. At the end of the handout is the grading rubric. In passing out the rubric at the start of the project students know what is required of them from the very beginning.

Two components of this project encourage a high quality outcome for the project:
  1. Students are required to create a single-sheet poster using an extra-large Microsoft PowerPoint slide.
  2. Students are required to electronically submit a preliminary poster design well in advance of the final due date for individualized critiquing.

Topics are not specifically assigned, rather students draw from a hat from among a menu of marine animals pre-selected by the instructor. The choices are broadly listed as marine phyla, class, order, or family. The student then narrows their choice to a specific genus and species. In this way the problem of more than one person having the exact same topic is averted, while maintaining an element of ownership on the student's part: from the very beginning they have to invest in the library research, in selecting a genus and species. There are always more topics than there are students in the class so if some individuals do not like their topic, they can always change. In this way there is still some flexibility for individual preference.

The poster session is conducted like at any science conference only on a shorter time frame. The class is broken up into three groups, and a single class period is broken into three poster sessions. For each session, one third of the class presents their poster, and the other two-thirds attend the poster session, range around and learn as much as they can in the short time available.

At the end of the class period, or in the next meeting, students are asked to reflect on the experience by responding to the following statements:

"Think about the posters you just saw and the concepts of symbiosis, trophic pyramids, populations and communities, symmetry, and adaptive strategies. Use your collective learning from the posters in general to talk about the ocean realm, its diversity and mystery, and why it is important to know about the world's animals before we destroy them. Use examples from the posters today and the concepts mentioned above to illustrate your points."

Students know in advance, before the poster session begins, that they will have to respond to this statement. On the day of the poster session they are told that they may take notes during the poster session, and then refer to those notes to help them compose their written response.

Student Handout for Diversity of Marine Life (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 27kB May28 13)

Teaching Notes and Tips

Weaknesses and areas of confusion among students

Because this project develops in parallel with the classroom section on biological oceanography, the expectations on students in terms of exactly what is important about marine animals becomes apparent to most individuals. Occasionally, however, one or two don't get it and need a little help. This comes as feedback when the draft poster is submitted.

Also, there may initially be some objection to the requirement of the single sheet design, to which I respond that part of the purpose is that we experience how things are done in the professional world, and using software in a creative and productive way is just a part of that. In all cases, the objection goes away once the process begins and individuals see the wisdom in the process.

When students are picking their topic, it is a typical case that the taxonomic name means nothing to them. Thus, occasionally people for one reason or another want to switch topics because they do not like any of the animals that belong to their phylum. Because of this, it is important to have more topic choices than there are students in the class.

When it comes time to print, people get bogged down in the process of it. For this part I provide much help, and support. Some students, at their own expense, will opt for just having a single-sheet poster printed. I have never encouraged that and some just choose to do it that way. I do encourage students to seek assistance when needed. I even offer to print their poster for them (individual sheets, not large format). Few take me up on the offer.

One way to get people to do well at something is by having them practice it. By this point in the semester, students in this class have already had one poster project. The first one was not as extensive, did not get a thorough preliminary evaluation, the poster was half the size, was completed in about 1 weeks' time, and had about half the value to their grade. But in that first poster project they were required to adhere to the same recommendations for creating an effective scientific poster as with this project. The theme for that earlier poster session was "the physical, chemical, optical, and acoustic properties of ocean water and its consequences". After that assignment students received extensive feedback on how to improve their poster for next time. In this way, poster quality improved dramatically second time through.


There are three assessment points for this project;
  1. Preliminary poster design is graded for promptness only. Extensive feedback is provided on how to improve their poster so there is strong incentive to be as complete as possible with this preliminary submission.
  2. Their final poster is graded according to a rubric. This rubric can be found on the last page of the Student Handout.
  3. The writing reflection is graded for their ability to infer, from what they have seen in the poster session, and earlier in class, the intrinsic value of the ocean realm and its inhabitants.

References and Resources

Creating Effective Poster Presentations: http://www.ncsu.edu/project/posters/