Investigating the ocean system

This investigation was compiled by Joe Balsiger, Josh Jordan, and Alicia McGraw, participants in a 2018 workshop entitled Connecting Earth science and sustainability to teach the NGSS, and edited by Anne Egger

Oceans are complex ecosystems that play a big role in the Earth system as a whole, providing an opportunity to make connections between Earth and life sciences.

The investigation described here is intended for a high school science class, and should take a few weeks. The steps in the investigation are illustrated in the diagram, showing the science and engineering practices that the student engage in along with major cross-cutting concepts and core ideas that will be developed. The steps are described in more detail in the table below.

The investigation will help students make progress towards four performance expectations:

  • HS-LS2-6: Evaluate the claims, evidence, and reasoning that the complex interactions in ecosystems maintain relatively consistent numbers and types of organisms in stable conditions, but changing conditions may result in a new ecosystem.
  • HS-LS2-7: Design, evaluate, and refine a solution for reducing the impacts of human activities on the environment and biodiversity.
  • HS-ESS2-2: Analyze geoscience data to make the claim that one change to Earth's surface can create feedbacks that cause changes to other Earth systems.
  • HS-ETS1-3: Evaluate a solution to a complex real-world problem based on prioritized criteria and trade-offs that account for a range of constraints, including cost, safety, reliability, and aesthetics as well as possible social, cultural, and environmental impacts.


Each step provides opportunities for formative assessment as the instructor elicits student thinking; the final step provides an opportunity for a summative assessment.

Step What students are doing What the instructor is doing InTeGrate module and unit

Students develop an initial systems map (model) of the ocean.

SEP 2: Developing and using models

Instructor leads a pre-assessment in which students list components of the ocean system and make an initial systems map.

Modified from Systems Thinking, Unit 2: Picturing Complexity


Students read research studies about the gray whale and summarize the key points in a jigsaw activity.

SEP 8: Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information

Instructor coordinates jigsaw activity where students share the main points of the four studies presented in the readings.

Ocean Sustainability, Unit 4: Oceans in Peril: Pressures on Ocean Ecosystems, Homework reading assignment


Students use a model to provide a mechanistic account for and predict patterns in ocean circulation due to density and temperature differences of water.

SEP 2: Developing and using models

Instructor runs a demonstration or show a video of a demonstration, asking students to predict what will happen.

Preparatory activity for Ocean Sustainability, Unit 1: Ocean Circulation and Health, and questions in Activity 1.1


Students analyze and interpret primary productivity data and ocean current maps to make claims about regions of upwelling in the ocean.

SEP 4: Analyzing and interpreting data

Instructor facilitates group work and group discussion.

Ocean Sustainability, Unit 1: Ocean Circulation and Health, Activity 1.2


Students read the results of research, summarizing the main points and processes involved in the impacts of climate change on ocean productivity.

SEP 8: Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information

Instructor facilitates group work and group discussion.

Ocean Sustainability, Unit 1: Ocean Circulation and Health, Activity 1.3


Students analyze and interpret data about ocean chemistry to predict the impact that changes will have on marine organisms.

SEP 4: Analyzing and interpreting data

Instructor introduces the process of ocean absorption of carbon dioxide, then creates student groups and facilitates their working with the data.

Ocean Sustainability, Unit 2: Ocean Acidification, Activity 2.2


Students use their predictions to plan and conduct an investigation to produce data about the impact of increased acidity of ocean water on carbonate shells, determining how and what to data to collect.

SEP 3: Planning and conducting investigations

Instructor provides guidelines for experiment and works with students to develop testable questions.

Ocean acidification experiment can be used as the basis for students to determine how and what to measure.


Students integrate different sources of information to address questions about the impact of ocean acidification on ocean ecosystems and food webs, focusing on coral reefs.

SEP 8: Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information

Instructor provides sources of information, facilitates students working in groups to obtain information, and guides discussion to elicit student thinking.

Ocean Sustainability, Unit 3: Ocean Habitat and Community Ecology


Summative assessment:
Students construct and present an argument for establishing a marine reserve in a particular location based on oceanographic, biological, and sociological data.

SEP 7: Engaging in argument from evidence

Instructor introduces the concept of a marine reserve and provides students with datasets to make their selections; instructor facilitates presentations of arguments and respectful critiques from peers.

Ocean Sustainability, Unit 5: Oceans in Protection: Marine Protected Areas