Lab 1: Coral Reefs, The Human View

The lab activity described here was created by Erin Bardar and Sarah Hill of TERC for the EarthLabs project.

Summary and Learning Objectives

Students are introduced to coral reef ecosystems and the importance of corals to humans. Students watch several short films about corals. The students then use microscopes to examine coral and identify its features.

After completing this investigation, students will be able to:

  • name at least three reasons why coral reefs are important to humans;
  • explain the role of symbiosis in reef ecosystems; and
  • explain the differences between living corals in the ocean and the pieces of coral one might see washed up on a beach.

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Context for Use

Lab 1: Coral Reefs, the Human View is intended to be an introductory lesson about coral reefs to help students appreciate both the beauty and value of corals from the human perspective. This activity should take between one and two 50- to 60-minute class periods. Part A requires the ability for the class to view videos and reading materials. Part B requires coral samples (provided by the teacher and/or students) and a microscope or magnifying glass.

Activity Overview and Teaching Materials

Part A introduces students to the beautiful underwater world of coral reefs through an introductory video to coral reefs and a second about symbiotic relationships on coral reefs.

In Part B of this lab, students examine pieces of coral to get a better understanding of the relationship between live coral and the skeletons one might find washed up on a beach. You can purchase inexpensive coral samples from a scientific supply store such as coral specimen. If possible, arrange a field trip to a local aquarium with a coral reef exhibit. Check this list of public aquariums for information about aquariums in your home state. Streaming video from the Philippines Coral Reef Cam comes from the Steinhart Aquarium in San Francisco, CA; audio is available twice daily during feeding times when biologists take questions from the local audience.

Printable Materials

  • Activity Sheet ( and )
  • Reading: Why are Coral Reefs so Important? PDF (Acrobat (PDF) 737kB Mar10 20)

Teaching Notes and Tips

During the videos and field trip (if applicable), have students take notes so they will be able to answer follow-up questions.


You can assess student understanding of topics addressed in this Investigation by grading their responses to the Stop and Think questions.

State and National Science Teaching Standards

Additional Resources

Background Information

Content Extension

  • Go to the Coral Reef Adventure  website for: more information about the film, Coral Reef Adventure, coral reef FAQs, fun activities and games, information about how to support coral reefs, and information about books to supplement the film. The information is in AdobeFlash. The 2007 film may be available through your local library or through purchase from ($6.98 + shipping and handling) and other major retailers.
  • Visit the Chasing Coral website for information about the film, currently streaming on Netflix. The 2017 film is roughly 93 minutes and could be used as an introductory film to this module.