Making Interdisciplinary Connections in Oceanography

Joceline Boucher, Maine Maritime Academy
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Initial Publication Date: April 13, 2018 | Reviewed: December 10, 2020


Students work alone or in groups to draw "cross plots" and make connections between ocean biology, chemistry, geology, and physics. This simple graphical tool helps students understand the interdisciplinary nature of oceanography. It also enables students to apply knowledge to a local area, an ocean, the global ocean, or a topic, such as ocean acidification.

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Undergraduate or high school course in oceanography (majors or non-majors).

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Students need an introductory knowledge of the geology, circulation, and chemistry of the oceans or a local area; many may have enough prior knowledge of ocean biology to complete the exercise without having covered ocean biology yet in class.

How the activity is situated in the course

This activity is situated about two-thirds into a standard survey course. In courses where instructors emphasize the interdisciplinary nature of the oceans, it could be used sooner. Instructors might also use the activity as a wrap-up at the end of a survey course or in conjunction with a review of basics at the beginning of a more advanced course.

The exercise and its introduction require about one 50-minute class period. I follow up with a 2- to 5-minute presentation from each student group in the next class session.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

To connect knowledge about the oceans, a local environment, or an oceanographic issue in a way that fosters interdisciplinary thinking.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

To learn, comprehend, and apply knowledge.

Other skills goals for this activity

For students to recognize how much they already know about the oceans, and to thus build academic confidence.

Description and Teaching Materials

Students see topic lists pertinent to the disciplinary domains of oceanography (biology, chemistry, geology, physics), such as "primary production" for biology and "upwelling" for physics. Students then provide examples, connecting each domain with the others (six examples and in all). For instance, they might connect primary production/biology and upwelling/physics through the delivery of nutrients to the photic zone. Their final task is to make a cross plot, an annotated graphic in which they use examples like these, for a local region or an ecosystem type, and connect the domains. Their cross plots are not unlike textbook diagrams (e.g., Pinet, Invitation to Oceanography, 7th Edition, Figure 1-1) but contain information specific to the selected region or ecosystem.

As a follow-on, in the next class session I project electronic copies of the cross plots and ask each student group to explain their plot.

  • Instructors should customize the handout with the topics covered so far in their courses.
  • The handout refers to local areas, which the instructor should replace or delete.
  • The cross plot example that the handout shows is from an editable PowerPoint, included below.
Cross plot activity (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 59kB Feb21 18)

Cross plot figure for customizing (PowerPoint 2007 (.pptx) 35kB Feb21 18)

Student-drawn samples (Acrobat (PDF) 77kB Feb21 18)

Follow on assessment (see also Assessment section, below). (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 22kB Feb21 18)

Samples of Student Assessment Activity (Acrobat (PDF) 195kB Feb21 18)

Teaching Notes and Tips

I draw a cross plot at the board and discuss it before the exercise. Hydrothermal vents are a focus area in my course, so I use examples from these locations for the cross plot. Instructors using the Integrate module on coral reefs might do this activity as a follow-on and use a reef ecosystem instead for the work at the board.

Asking students to present their plots to the class provides opportunities for the instructor to help clarify ideas and correct misconceptions. Several samples of student-drawn cross plots are included the teaching material files (above).


On the final exam, I ask students to connect interdisciplinary topics, either with a cross plot or an essay response. I have also altered the cross plots to include "humans", as in the example above ("FinalAssessment.docx"), and have used these in lieu of a final.

References and Resources