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These materials are part of a collection of classroom-tested modules and courses developed by InTeGrate. The materials engage students in understanding the earth system as it intertwines with key societal issues. The materials are free and ready to be adapted by undergraduate educators across a range of courses including: general education or majors courses in Earth-focused disciplines such as geoscience or environmental science, social science, engineering, and other sciences, as well as courses for interdisciplinary programs.
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Unit 1: Ocean Circulation and Health

Michelle Kinzel (San Diego Mesa College/Southwestern College)
Astrid Schnetzer (North Carolina State University)
Cara Thompson (Santa Monica College)

These materials have been reviewed for their alignment with the Next Generation Science Standards as detailed below. Visit InTeGrate and the NGSS to learn more.


In this unit, students are introduced to concepts of ocean circulation, upwelling, downwelling and bioproductivity. Through syntheses of these ideas, students observe patterns related to global effects of climate change on ocean circulation, nutrient availability and feedbacks to climate.

Science and Engineering Practices

Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions: Construct an explanation using models or representations. MS-P6.2:

Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions: Construct an explanation that includes qualitative or quantitative relationships between variables that predict(s) and/or describe(s) phenomena. MS-P6.1:

Cross Cutting Concepts

Systems and System Models: Systems may interact with other systems; they may have sub-systems and be a part of larger complex systems. MS-C4.1:

Patterns: Graphs, charts, and images can be used to identify patterns in data. MS-C1.4:

Cause and effect: Cause and effect relationships can be suggested and predicted for complex natural and human designed systems by examining what is known about smaller scale mechanisms within the system. HS-C2.2:

Disciplinary Core Ideas

The Roles of Water in Earth's Surface Processes: Variations in density due to variations in temperature and salinity drive a global pattern of interconnected ocean currents. MS-ESS2.C4:

Ecosystem Dynamics, Functioning, and Resilience: A complex set of interactions within an ecosystem can keep its numbers and types of organisms relatively constant over long periods of time under stable conditions. If a modest biological or physical disturbance to an ecosystem occurs, it may return to its more or less original status (i.e., the ecosystem is resilient), as opposed to becoming a very different ecosystem. Extreme fluctuations in conditions or the size of any population, however, can challenge the functioning of ecosystems in terms of resources and habitat availability. HS-LS2.C1:

Earth Materials and Systems: Earth’s systems, being dynamic and interacting, cause feedback effects that can increase or decrease the original changes. HS-ESS2.A1:

Performance Expectations

Earth's Systems: 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-ESS2-2:

  1. This material was developed and reviewed through the InTeGrate curricular materials development process. This rigorous, structured process includes:

    • team-based development to ensure materials are appropriate across multiple educational settings.
    • multiple iterative reviews and feedback cycles through the course of material development with input to the authoring team from both project editors and an external assessment team.
    • real in-class testing of materials in at least 3 institutions with external review of student assessment data.
    • multiple reviews to ensure the materials meet the InTeGrate materials rubric which codifies best practices in curricular development, student assessment and pedagogic techniques.
    • review by external experts for accuracy of the science content.

  2. This activity was selected for the On the Cutting Edge Exemplary Teaching Collection

    Resources in this top level collection a) must have scored Exemplary or Very Good in all five review categories, and must also rate as “Exemplary” in at least three of the five categories. The five categories included in the peer review process are

    • Scientific Accuracy
    • Alignment of Learning Goals, Activities, and Assessments
    • Pedagogic Effectiveness
    • Robustness (usability and dependability of all components)
    • Completeness of the ActivitySheet web page

    For more information about the peer review process itself, please see

This page first made public: Nov 22, 2016


In this unit, students explore the role of ocean circulation in climate modification and bioproductivity. The activities require students to interpret the effect of horizontal and vertical seawater movement on heat distribution, carbon dioxide dissolution, and nutrient availability. Students will use their new knowledge to predict how those parameters may change as a result of major shifts in ocean circulation associated with global climate change.

Learning Goals

By completing this unit, students will be able to:

  • Describe how global ocean currents affect coastal net primary productivity and fishing industries.
  • Predict how ocean currents might be affected by modern climate change.
  • Formulate hypotheses about how regional parameters (climate, primary productivity) may change as a result of climate-driven change in ocean circulation.

This unit directly supports multiple InTeGrate guiding principles and addresses grand challenges by introducing students to how ocean circulation impacts both bioproductivity and climate feedbacks.

Context for Use

This unit is designed to be used during a 50-minute class period and is ideal for class sizes of 10–50, but can be used for any class size. For larger classes, individual groups should be larger, and discussion can remain in groups with a final class discussion at the end of the class period. It can be used as a stand-alone lesson in an introductory oceanography, environmental geology course or as part of the ocean sustainability module. Students should have some understanding of drivers behind ocean currents. If they do not, assign the following National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) video as pre-homework:

Description and Teaching Materials

Pre-class work

Students should watch NASA's Perpetual Ocean, accessible at or


Review pre-homework (5 min)

Begin by asking students if they know what drives the lateral ocean currents that they saw in the pre-homework assignment. Let them know that there are vertical currents we cannot see at the surface of the ocean, and that these can be controlled by lateral ocean currents. Provide the students with the handout and review reading (background) and instructions with them. Note: activities can be printed in grayscale or black and white.

Activity 1.1 Upwelling and downwelling (10 min total)

Activity 1.1 introduces students to basic ocean circulation and provides students an opportunity to determine what the primary controls on upwelling and downwelling of seawater.

5 min: Students should work individually on the Activity 1.1 Basic Rules of Ocean Circulation guided questions. During this time it is helpful to walk around the classroom to see if any students have questions.

5 min: Split students into groups of four and encourage them to compare their answers for Activity 1.1. — adjust the number of students in each group if there are an odd number of groups. During this time it is helpful to walk around the classroom to check that each group has correct answers.

Activity 1.2. Upwelling, downwelling and bioproductivity (20 min total)

In Activity 1.2, students are required to describe how surface currents can control where zones of high net bioproductivity occur.

5 min: Have groups count off in order from 1 to 16 and record their group number. If there are more than 16 groups, have them start over at 1 when 16 is reached. Either pass out maps or have students come up to collect a map for their group. Odd-numbered groups get a surface current map and even-numbered groups get a net primary productivity map. Instruct the groups to look at the chart in the handout to determine their assigned region.

5 min: Instruct groups to identify regions of diverging currents/upwelling (odd groups) or high net primary productivity (even groups) and mark these regions on their maps.

10 min: Instruct students to compare their answers with another group that is assigned to the same region (they should use the table in the handout to find the group they should pair with. For examples, group 1 should find group 2; group 3 should find group 4, etc.). The students should also spend this time answering the remaining questions in Activity 1.2.

Activity 1.3. Effect of climate change on ocean circulation and health (15 min total)

Activity 1.3 allows students to predict global effects of climate change on ocean circulation and feedbacks to climate. Students should think about global effects on carbon dioxide uptake at the ocean surface and delivery to the deep ocean, and nutrient availability for bioproductivity.

5 min: Review the PowerPoint (PowerPoint 2007 (.pptx) 930kB Feb21 17) to provide background for the Earth system (notes are provided within presentation).

10 min: Instruct students to read the article and discuss their initial reactions with their group-mates. The reading and questions can be assigned as homework.

***Unit 1 Homework below can be used as an alternative for Activity 1.3 for those instructors who want to explore the effects of climate change on deep ocean circulation.

Activity files: *Note that Activities 1.1, 1.2 and 1.3 are meant to be classroom exercises, although Activity 1.3 could easily be assigned as homework if time is limited. The original Word files (.docs) were provided so that it is possible to make changes.

If an activity on deep ocean currents is desired, a homework or alternative Activity 1.3 is provided below.

Instructor keys:

Teaching Notes and Tips

This unit requires quite a bit of group work. It is recommended that the professor start each activity with a short introduction. While groups are working, walk around the classroom to keep students on track. For Activity 1.1 it is helpful to review answers before students move on to Activity 1.2.

You can print the surface currents map in black and white or grayscale. The net primary productivity map should be printed in color—or, if color copies cannot be made, it should be projected for the even-numbered groups.


Unit 1 grading rubric for Activities 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 and homework assignment: Unit 1 rubric (.xls) (Excel 2007 (.xlsx) 41kB Jul25 16) Unit 1 rubric (.pdf) (Acrobat (PDF) 41kB Aug31 16)

Assessments test whether students have a basic understanding of what drives vertical ocean currents (Activity 1.1) and how ocean currents affect net primary productivity (Activity 1.2). Activity 1.3 tests whether students can combine newly gained knowledge to outline how climate change is changing ocean circulation and bioproductivity.

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These materials are part of a collection of classroom-tested modules and courses developed by InTeGrate. The materials engage students in understanding the earth system as it intertwines with key societal issues. The collection is freely available and ready to be adapted by undergraduate educators across a range of courses including: general education or majors courses in Earth-focused disciplines such as geoscience or environmental science, social science, engineering, and other sciences, as well as courses for interdisciplinary programs.
Explore the Collection »