Initial Publication Date: February 10, 2016

Getting Your Feet Wet: Simulation Science and the Marine Sciences Curriculum

RICHARD (RICK) SCHMIDT ( is an instructor of advanced geosciences and science department chair at Upper Dublin High School in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. He is also the recipient of the 2011 Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching for Pennsylvania.

In 2007, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released Revolutionizing Earth System Science Education in the 21st Century, a comprehensive report that sought to examine the mixed record of earth science education in the United States and offer ways to improve it. Unfortunately, the report confirmed what many of us already knew, that "these findings point to a disconnect between the pressing need for an Earth system literate society and the current K-12 education system that is responsible for developing this capacity" (Hoffman, 2007). Other research conducted by such organizations as the American Geosciences Institute also point to a potential deficit of as many as 135,000 geoscientists (including oceanographers) by the year 2022 (Wilson, 2014). Yet for many states that do not border an ocean, the teaching of marine science to high school students in an interesting and scientifically meaningful way, that also makes clear and deliberate connections to the future marine science workforce, can be both impractical and obscure, especially when students have little experience with the ocean environment.

The issue for many of us becomes how to create a meaningful marine science curriculum that, not only presents marine science content spelled out in the Next Generation Science Standards, but also creates a total classroom experience that goes well beyond the typical aquarium field trip to raise student interest in the field. Enter simulation science. Through the use of sophisticated yet manageable underwater simulations that present marine science topics in a comprehensive, fun and safe manner, the teaching of marine science can be elevated to a new level within the confines of a school's pool and a partnership with a local dive shop.

Multifaceted and Multidisciplinary

The Advanced Geosciences (AGS) Salvors dive exercise is a SCUBA-based, multi-phase marine science exercise that is enacted in the high school's pool and simulates the discovery of a previously unknown debris field in the Florida Keys. The simulation is divided up into distinct phases with the goal of providing students with the basic know-how to execute a dive and complete a comprehensive underwater survey of the wreck site. The Instruction Phase introduces students to the scientific principles relevant to SCUBA diving and working underwater through the use of three instructional units: dive science, dive gear, and dive skills. These units mirror the curriculum of the National Association of Underwater Instructors' (NAUI) Scuba Diver course. Dive science covers everything from buoyancy and gas law principles to thermal effects on the body, unique sensory challenges encountered when working underwater, and even barotrauma. Using dive gear introduces students to the tools used by marine scientists when working underwater and provides a practical, hands-on experience with buoyancy control devices (BCDs), regulators, and air cylinders. This phase ends with an introduction to diving techniques needed for student divers to have a fun and safe underwater experience in the pool.

Ultimately, one of the major goals of the AGS divers is to correctly identify the debris field as one of five possible ships that actually sank in the Florida Keys between the 17th and 19th centuries. Since the debris field typically contains over 100 human artifacts alone, it is imperative that divers know about all five wrecks and the conditions under which the ships sank. Learning about those other wrecks constitutes a large part of the Research Phase, and plays a major role in the students' classroom experience. During this phase, small student teams of surveyors investigate basic maritime terminology from the Age of Sail (mid-16th to the mid-19th centuries) and learn about the types of ships commonly found during the time period. Other teams investigate the specific cargo, crew, and conditions under which each of the five "suspect" ships sank. Still others investigate underwater archaeology techniques necessary to accurately map the wreck site. Students playing the role of biologists research the types of marine life found in the Florida Keys and especially note endangered or dangerous species that might be important to know about during the team's simulated dive. Students taking on the roles of photographers meanwhile research the nuances and unique challenges of underwater photography and the specifications of the cameras (provided by the dive partners) they will use to document the expedition.

Finally, the Operation Phase (run by the student expedition leaders) combines all of the prior research into an executable dive plan using the well-known "SEABAG" dive planning acronym. For instance, the "S" in SEABAG stands for site assessment and requires students to examine such things as weather, tidal patterns, currents, and water temperature for the intended dive area. This data, representing a combination of actual and simulated information, is collected from NOAA and local dive operations in the actual Florida Keys and also from the pool itself, since some site assessment measurements will actually affect the divers when they go in the water. Other letters of the SEABAG acronym introduce additional important facets of dive planning. This plan in turn is used to guide the AGS divers through their full day underwater experience in the pool working on the wreck site. In the time they have at the bottom of the pool, they must execute their dive plan and complete their academic objectives while preserving the integrity of the wreck. The team's final project is a comprehensive report that includes all of their historical findings, a scaled map of the wreck site emphasizing the locations of artifacts and ship components, a biological species and diversity report based on organisms simulated through the use of seashells and artificial saltwater aquarium plants, and relevant details about each diver's experience, such as air usage, time under water and equipment used.

The Value of Partnerships

Partnerships with outside agencies and businesses can greatly enhance the educational experience by bringing material assets and professional expertise to the classroom that would otherwise be impossible to produce through educational channels alone and the AGS Salvors simulation is no exception. This exercise was the outcome of a fortuitous meeting with a school district parent who owned a dive shop and was willing to support such a wild idea as a marine archaeology simulation in a swimming pool.

The local dive shop provided all of the SCUBA equipment for the students along with certified divers and dive instructors on the day of the simulation, while all of the dive science operations and classroom objectives are achieved through the expertise of the science teacher. The actual "debris" that simulates the wreck was acquired by the instructor with the support of various grant agencies and foundations that supported innovative ideas in science education. The wreck site itself is set up by the science instructor the day prior to the simulation. However, it is worth noting that the very first iteration of this simulation was completed with almost no underwater props and can still be executed effectively in various forms without a significant amount of monetary assistance.


  • Hoffman, M. & Barstow, D., 2007, Revolutionizing earth system science education for the 21st century: Cambridge, MA, Center for Earth and Space Science Education, TERC.
  • National Ocean Service, 2011, How important is the ocean to our economy?: Washington, D.C.: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Retrieved from
  • Schmidt, R., 2013, Bridging the geoscience workforce gap: advanced high school geoscience programs (doctoral dissertation), Drexel University, Philadelphia, PA.
  • Wilson, C., 2014, Status of the geoscience workforce 2014: Alexandria, VA, American Geosciences Institute.