InTeGrate Modules and Courses >Ocean Sustainability > Unit 4: Oceans in Peril: Pressures on Ocean Ecosystems
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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 4: Oceans in Peril: Pressures on Ocean Ecosystems

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 read and summarize a research article that describes recent behavioral changes of gray whales. Small groups are assigned different scientific studies that are cited in the article and evaluate information through a class gallery walk where they correlate main concepts, scientific evidence, data and observations.

Science and Engineering Practices

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:

Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information: Critically read scientific literature adapted for classroom use to determine the central ideas or conclusions and/or to obtain scientific and/or technical information to summarize complex evidence, concepts, processes, or information presented in a text by paraphrasing them in simpler but still accurate terms. HS-P8.1:

Engaging in Argument from Evidence: Evaluate the claims, evidence, and/or reasoning behind currently accepted explanations or solutions to determine the merits of arguments. HS-P7.2:

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:

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

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:

  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 Reviewed Teaching Collection

    This activity has received positive reviews in a peer review process involving five review categories. The five categories included in the 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


Students will read and summarize an article that details scientific studies on behavioral changes of gray whales. Discussed are their feeding behavior, migratory behavior, and breeding patterns in the Pacific. Students will examine the whales' responses and discuss in small groups how the responses relate to climate change. By interpreting potential links between gray whale behavior and changed ocean conditions, students will be able to infer the ecological role that gray whales play within a community and an ecosystem. Students will summarize the main concepts, scientific evidence, data and observations cited, and justify why gray whales can be considered "ecosystem sentinels."

Learning Goals

By the end of the unit, students will be able to:

  • Describe the most common data sets and principles used to study climate change, including global temperatures, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, warming ocean temperatures, melting glaciers and sea ice, and rising sea levels, and identify scientific data and evidence as distinguished from interpretations.
  • Cite evidence related to climate change that affects systems on the organismal and ecosystem level, using examples from a provided article about gray whales.
  • Correlate scientific evidence and possible interpretations related to gray whale behaviors and climate change.

This unit directly supports multiple InTeGrate guiding principles and addresses grand challenges by introducing students to ecosystem approaches to studying climate change, exploring peer reviewed literature, and encouraging interpretation of real scientific evidence.

Context for Use

This activity is designed for one 50-minute class period in an introductory geoscience (or related) course. It includes a homework assignment to be completed prior to the class, and a gallery walk group activity and oral report for small groups of 5–6 students. This activity works best by grouping larger classes into smaller groupings of 24 students for completion of a gallery walk and oral reporting. This unit should be introduced after a basic unit describing traditional methods used to study climate change, including atmospheric temperature changes, carbon dioxide levels, ocean temperature changes, decreasing sea ice extent and rising sea levels. This unit has been written to follow Units 1–3 in the Ocean Sustainability Module.

Description and Teaching Materials

For homework, students will read and summarize an article that is based on a passage from a peer-reviewed article, "Marine Mammals As Ecosystem Sentinels," and complete the worksheets included with the article. Then, in class they will review a PowerPoint, "Gray Whales As Sentinels," with the instructor covering basic principles of the article. Students divide into groups of 3–4 for a gallery walk (learn more about gallery walks) using the information completed during the homework assignment, and describing the major cited evidence linking gray whales and climate change, and identifying scientific interpretations related to the evidence from the article. Students report the results of the gallery walk orally to their group.


Classwork (49 min total)

The gallery walk works best in small groups (5–6) students for four stations. For classes larger than 24 students, teachers should set up more than one set of posters for the gallery walk (8 min per station, depending on student involvement and need for comments = 32 minutes). For very large classes (approaching 100 students), instructors can utilize a "virtual gallery walk" where the students stay in the same location for small group work, and during each rotation, every student rotates to the next task without physically changing location.

** The stations will not need the same amount of time. The first three rotations require more group conversation and time to write lengthy responses on the posters. The last station is agree/disagree and comment, and can be shortened for time constraints.

Teaching Notes and Tips

Gallery Walk

Each station of the gallery walk needs a large, poster-sized piece of paper, a pack of colored markers, and method of attaching the poster to the wall.

During the gallery walk, instructors should check in with groups early in the rotations, after students have attempted to link interpretations with evidence (after Rotation 2). Accuracy at this stage is key to the continued comments and summary of the stations. If the students need adjustments or assistance in their interpretations, the instructor may give prompts or suggestions for the groups to consider.

Instructors can prepare the posters with labels and headings to save time if so desired.

The Gallery Walk In Depth Instructions and Key for Teachers has two sections that are similar, Group Rotation and Station Rotation. It is suggested that instructor print a copy of the Station Rotation section to be placed at each station for students to have as confirmation of oral instructions during gallery walk activity.


This assessment is provided for use after teaching the unit and is optional. Instructors can assign the Assessment included here, or use the format as examples of questions for incorporating into testing procedures.

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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 »