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The materials in this course were developed through an NSF grant designed to improve how students learn about and interact with polar regions. The intent was to create materials to help students engage with polar data and researchers and learn more about how polar science issues affect people and animals
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Instructor Materials: Overview of the Oceans in the News Course

Course Overview

Many educators favor addressing the technical challenges associated with accessing and visualizing empirical observations and data. We contend that with each dataset, there is an implicit story that justifies its collection. By making these implicit stories explicit to students (i.e. the story challenge), they are more prepared to understand the meaning and applicability of the data collected. We have found that considering stories first is a critical step for students to become engaged in the data.

This course focuses on the interrelationship of technical and story challenges when communicating science. It uses international, national and local news media as a vehicle to show students how science data is transformed into a story. It then asks students to examine these media stories through common cultural narratives to understand how the data is used to further the story.

Polar environments are often the spotlight of hot-button news articles debating climate change. Since these environments are the subject of many articles but are so inaccessible, accessing online polar data sets provides a way for students to interact with the polar environment even from a distance. By analyzing this data alongside current news articles, students can gain a better understanding of how polar environments are changing, and how this is affecting the people and animals that live there.

Course Goal

Students will analyze media articles and data sets focusing on marine polar environments, then pen letters to the editor that demonstrate their understanding of both the article and data. Students will gain a greater understanding of the unique features of polar ecosystems, while learning basic programming skills and improving their critical thinking.

This course is designed to engage non-science majors with scientific data. They will learn how data has people behind it who provide a reason for that data to be collected. By bringing in this human element, it helps make scientific data more accessible to a general audience.

Another goal of this course is to move away from a lecture-centric pedagogy and focus on active learning strategies. Thus, there are few lectures for this course, and it is possible to split those lectures up over several class periods. The course has a modular structure, and individual modules can be adapted to an existing course or used collectively as an entire course.

Current Modules

Module 1 (Living Narratives)

This module introduces students to the concept of "living narratives" and perspective taking, which is used throughout the other modules.

Module 2 (Introduction to R and Pair Programming)

This module helps set up the rest of the class by introducing students to coding in the R programming environment.

Module 3 (Sea Ice as an Indicator of Climate Change)

The next three modules are polar-content-focused. Each module follows the same general guide, where students are introduced to the topic with readings from a textbook and a media article, then there is a class lecture, followed by a pair programming exercise in R, and culminating with a reassessment of the news article in light of the analysis of the collected data. Students then use their programming output and reasoning skills to write a letter to the editor that responds to the news article, and this serves as the primary assessment for each module.

This module covers Arctic and Antarctic sea ice decline.

Module 4 (Polar Ecosystems)

This module covers polar food webs.

Module 5 (Human Dimensions in the Poles)

This module covers heavy metal contaminants in traditional foods.

Module 6 (Capstone - Reversing the Process)

The last module serves as a capstone project for students to take what they have learned and transform it into their own news article.

Also provided are an optional module on sea level rise, and other materials to enrich the course.

Assigned Text

The suggested textbook to accompany this course is Introduction to the Biology of Marine Life by Morrissey, Sumich, and Pinkard-Meier. This book was selected because it introduces various marine topics at a level suitable for non-majors, and it includes a chapter on polar ecosystems. Other introductory marine science textbooks could be suitable for the course.


Assessment in this course primarily consists of short quizzes, assignments to be handed in at the end of each module, and a final project. More details can be found in the dedicated Assessment page, and in the Assessment section of each module.

Teaching Space

This class is best taught in a project-based learning space, where students are not at singular desks but rather gathered in groups around tables, and with a projection system to allow for sharing of student computers. This creates natural groups for students to work on problems and questions together. Being able to rotate computer projection among students creates a naturally collaborative environment and facilitates student speaking and presentation.

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How this module is being adopted and adapted »