Initial Publication Date: May 20, 2016

Diving Deep: Engaging Students with Authentic Ocean Data

MEGHAN E. MARRERO ( is an associate professor of secondary education in the School of Education at Mercy College, Dobbs Ferry, New York, and KAREN WOODRUFF is the director of curriculum and instruction at the US Satellite Laboratory, Rye, New York.

Why do humpback whales migrate with the seasons? Are cooler or warmer waters more productive? How do the seafloors of the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean basins compare? Due to improved remote sensing and technological capabilities, there is a myriad of ocean data sets freely available online including sea surface temperature (SST), bathymetry, chlorophyll, pollution, sea ice, salinity, and tracks of animals. Students can access these data to answer their own scientific questions or those posed by their instructors. The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) (NGSS Lead States, 2013) for K-12 science in the United States represent a philosophical shift in the way that students learn science. Osborne (2014) argues that it is only when students actually engage in scientific practices that they will understand how science advances, that is, how scientists establish and support their findings. But how can we get students to use the NGSS Science and Engineering Practices appropriately, in ways similar to the ones scientists work? One approach is for teachers to use authentic earth data to support students' development in the NGSS science practices (Marrero, Gunning & Woodruff, 2015). Using authentic data gives students the opportunity to gain contextual understandings of the applications of science (Chin & Malhotra, 2002; Doering & Veletsianos, 2007; Krumhansl et al., 2013; Lee & Butler, 2003) and can make learning experiences more powerful for students (Ucar & Trundle, 2011; Adams, 2011). The diverse ocean data sets available to students and teachers represent an important and relevant opportunity.

Bathymetry data are easy to interpret, even for young students, once they make the connection that many features they typically learn about on land, e.g., mountain ranges, plains, canyons, are also found in the ocean.
Students can access, interpret, and analyze ocean data in ways that are appropriate and useful for their grade/developmental level (i.e., elementary, middle, high school, or community college). For instance, the NGSS ask fourth graders to "Analyze and interpret data from maps to describe patterns of Earth's features" (Performance Expectation 4-ESS2-2). There are many oceanic maps they can explore. For instance, send students to view the bathymetry (ocean depth) map on the Signals of Spring – ACES website (, which allows them to zoom and look for patterns of continental shelves, mid-ocean ridges, and island arcs, for example (Figure 1). Bathymetry data are easy to interpret, even for young students, once they make the connection that many features they typically learn about on land, such as mountain ranges, plains, and canyons, are also found in the ocean. Students can use the "ruler tool" at the top of the map to measure distances of the width of continental shelves, for example, and make comparisons. Learners might note, for instance, that the continental shelf on the East Coast of the United States is much wider than that of the West Coast. They can interpret bathymetric images to gather evidence for plate tectonics by examining patterns of mid-ocean ridges and trenches and comparing these data with maps of earthquake or volcano locations (e.g., Middle schoolers might use the color bars to make more quantitative comparisons of depth. For instance, students can compare depths of the abyssal plains with continental shelves or trenches and practice making scale drawings, using the NGSS crosscutting concept of Scale, Proportion, and Quantity.

Data Bouys
Also on the ACES Website, which was originally funded by a NOAA Environmental Literacy Grant, students can access sea surface temperature, chlorophyll, sea height, current, and weather data, along with the tracks of animals tagged with satellite transmitters. On the "Maps and Data" page, students can view marine species currently being tracked, which can include sea turtles, seals, seabirds, and cetaceans, in areas all over the world. The tracked species vary from season to season, and depend on partner scientists who generously share their data with education projects. Students of all ages are often extremely excited to follow the paths of animals! These data represent a great opportunity for older students to investigate how marine animals respond to seasonal changes and other environmental factors such as food availability, temperature, and weather. By clicking on the Earth (With Animal) Data icons, students can make observations of animals' movements with respect to the different types of Earth data. Use this opportunity to help students construct explanations as they support their ideas with evidence from the maps, which they interpret using straightforward color bars.

Another great resource for students of all ages is the National Data Buoy Center ( Through this portal, students can access near real-time data for buoys anchored throughout the world ocean, as well as the Great Lakes (see Figure 2). Clicking on a square, which represents a buoy, reveals different types of data. Buoys in U.S. waters show basic recent hydrological and meteorological observations. Another click, on "view details," reveals additional data for the past day or more. Ask younger students to practice graphing skills as they "visit" a buoy and create a line graph to reveal patterns in one or more parameter. Older students can use the NGSS practice of Using Mathematics and Computational Thinking as they conduct more sophisticated statistical comparisons, e.g., between the air and sea temperatures in different regions.

Observed Dissolved Oxygen
Students in high school and beyond can access robust data sets and conduct deep analyses through the NOAA World Ocean Atlas Figures ( By choosing which parameters to analyze, students can engage in the NGSS practice of Asking Questions and Designing Solutions about parameters including temperature, salinity, dissolved oxygen, and nitrates. For instance, by choosing dissolved oxygen (DO), a student can generate a data series that illustrates observed DO levels from the surface down to a depth of 5500 meters (See Figure 3 for an example). This resource provides an excellent basis for students to test hypotheses, analyze data, make comparisons, look for patterns, and identify anomalies. Ask students to explain the patterns they observe and to support their ideas with evidence from the maps. They can conduct similar investigations with other parameters and, for example, look for evidence of deep-water currents by analyzing temperature data.

As you consider ways to help your students to think like scientists, consider supporting their work with these and other oceanographic data sets. After all, the ocean is the dominant feature of our "Blue Planet" and studying it is the first step toward protecting its resources for the next generation and beyond.


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