Author Archive | Kristin Hunter-Thomson

Oysters and Oyster Reefs in Your Classroom

Oysters form oyster reefs, which have been called the “coral reefs” of temperate oceans. The reefs create habitats for numerous organisms and in fact support an entire ecosystem. And we have them here in New Jersey! So they provide a great topic for lessons about our local ocean.

In the Beck et al. (2011) paper , researchers estimated that 85% of oyster reefs throughout the world have been lost in the last couple centuries (see the What’s Hot in Ocean Sciences article in the Spring 2012 newsletter for a summary of the paper or see above for a copy of the paper).

But what does that mean for your students? How can you incorporate some of this research into your classroom? Below I have developed a way to bring up these topics (Introducing these Topics) and then provided a list of multiple oyster and oyster reef lesson plans that you can use with your students (Oyster & Oyster Reef Lesson Plans).

Also, Rutgers University runs a program called Project PORTS (Promoting Oyster Restoration Through Schools) to increase an awareness and understanding of the oyster as a critical species and an important natural resource of the Bay; to promote a basic understanding of important scientific concepts and stewardship values; and to contribute to the revitalization of Delaware Bay oyster populations via a community-based restoration project. For more information visit the Project PORTS website.

Introducing these Topics

Oysters provide a unique opportunity to teach your students both about a native species we have here in New Jersey and an ecosystem engineer. Many students are familiar with “ecosystem engineers,” though they might not know it. Ask your students where Nemo and Dory live. They will most likely tell you on a coral reef. Corals are the ecosystem engineers in tropical seas. They create the structure for all the other organisms to grow upon and create the ecosystem. Oysters do the same thing in temperate estuaries. Juvenile oysters prefer to settle on top of other oysters, so over time large structurally complex oyster reefs (or beds) develop. This structure enables many other organisms to thrive where they would not be able to without the oysters. There are many other interesting facts about oysters that you can share with your students (explore some of the resources below to learn more).

Another interesting thing about oysters is that they have fueled coastal economies for centuries. There are reports of ancient Romans eating oysters. There was even a war fought over oysters! This offers an opportunity to integrate some history and social science into your science discussions about oysters. Use the fact that many people eat oysters, even some of your students or their parents, to drive home the human connection with oysters. We rely upon oysters as a source of food and many people rely on them for their job (whether they are fishermen, fish processors, fish market owners, scientists, etc.) Have your students brainstorm how many different people are involved in the oyster industry. Remind them that oysters are filter feeders, so they clean the water of particulates. That means that all of us that like to go swimming or do other recreational sports in bays also rely on oysters to keep the water clean.

After you have introduced some of the ecology and human connections of oysters, tell your students that you are concerned because the numbers of oysters are going down throughout the world. Ask the students how they would go about making an estimate of how oysters are doing if they were oyster scientists. The big points to help the students reach are: 1) to learn about how the abundance has changed over time they will need data on the current abundance as well as past abundances and 2) to make the estimates standardized or comparable across the world they need to come up with an system for classifying the bays from good to bad. For example, in the Beck et al. (2011) paper they used current abundance data (often from fisheries statistics) and past data from 20-130 years before present day. They also made a classification system as: good (< 50% lost), fair (50 – 89% lost), poor (90 – 99% lost), functionally extinct (meaning they cannot support the ecosystem, > 99% lost).

Have the students brainstorm reasons why the abundance of oysters might be going down. Write down their ideas on a large piece of paper in a left hand column. Help the students think of other reasons besides overfishing (or overharvesting). For example, alterations to shorelines have increased the amount of sediment in the water which chokes the gills, changes in the amount of freshwater that enters an estuary as we use it for agriculture and other human uses changes the salinity of and the amount of oxygen in the water, introductions of non-native species into an estuary outcompete the native species, and new diseases that only effect oysters have developed over the past century that kill most oysters before they can reproduce.

It is important to share with your students that there is a lot of good work going on throughout the world that is helping the abundance of oysters recover to higher numbers. In the right hand column of the chart paper have students brainstorm ways that we could recover oysters (maybe by countering each of their ideas of why the number of oysters have decreased). Examples include: improving protection of oysters, creating fisheries management rules that make sure we fish sustainably, protecting oyster reefs as important habitat for the ecosystem, stopping the introduction of non-native species, working to keep extra sediments out of the waterways, determining ways to improve the water quality in waterways to protect oysters from disease, etc.

The benefit of this exercise is having students come up with the reasons why the numbers have declined and creative solutions that we can do to bring the numbers back. Stress with the students that this is what scientists do, in fact more than half of the Beck et al. (2011) paper was highlighting possible solutions.


• Large chart paper and pens

Oyster & Oyster Reef Lesson Plans

  1. BUILD YOUR OWN OYSTER REEF – an interactive online program for students to build an oyster reef ecosystem (The Academy of Natural Sciences,
  2. EDUCATION ON THE HALF SHELL – using oysters to teach biological concepts (Louisiana Marine Education Resources,
  3. JUVENILE OYSTER DISEASE: A GROWING PROBLEM – activity to learn about diseases that are slowing oyster recovery using real data from the University of Maine (BRIDGE, Virginia Sea Grant, Virginia Institute of Marine Science, University of Maine,
  4. LIVING BAY ONLINE CURRICULUM – using integrated science and language arts these lesson plans teach students about the bay, and more specifically: managing the oyster industry, oyster farming, oyster disease, harvesting methods and data, economics, sustainable management and conservation (
  5. MAN AND MOLLUSC – website with many articles and lesson plans about mollusks (
  6. OYSTER WARS OF THE LOWER CHESAPEAKE BAY – learn the history behind the importance of oysters in the Mid-Atlantic region (The Mariners’ Museum,
  7. RIVERLAB – lesson plans about oyster ecology and water quality (Columbia University,
  8. THE LIVING CHESAPEAKE LESSON PLANS – life history information as well as lesson plans on external and internal anatomy, harvesting hemolymph (blood) and isolating blood cells, and a filter experiment to see filter feeding in action (Maryland Sea Grant,
  9. VIRGINIA OYSTER HERITAGE EDUCATION RESOURCES – an oyster quiz and two “build a reef” activities (Virginia Department of Environmental Quality,
  10. VIRGINA’S OYSTER REEF TEACHING EXPERIENCE (VORTEX) – a list of resources and lesson plans about oysters and other bivalves in the Mid-Atlantic (Virginia Institute of Marine Science,

Ocean Sciences in the Next Generation Science Standards

Rutgers University’s Institute of Marine & Coastal Sciences is committed to working with our partners in K-12 schools to ensure that every child gains a broad understanding of the importance of the ocean, especially its influences on the economy, climate, biodiversity, our food sources, and to the overall quality of our lives.

The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) represent an historic opportunity to advance the goal of improving public understanding of the vital role the ocean plays in all our lives. This is a matter of great economic, social, and scientific importance to all Americans. Hundreds of scientists and educators nationwide have joined together in the Ocean Literacy Campaign to ensure that ocean concepts are part of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

In order to most effectively support school and district level implementation of the Standards, the NJDOE is working with a network of volunteers (including myself) to develop a “model” curriculum (1.0) beginning with unit-based student learning objectives and formative unit assessments. This “model” curriculum will serve as an exemplar for districts and schools as they work to design the curriculum that will best meet the needs of the students they serve.

Here are some key ocean ideas we hope to bring to the forefront of our work with NJDOE:

  • There are aspects of life in the ocean and of ocean processes that are quite unique and unlike their counterparts on land and in the atmosphere.
  • There often appears to be a default assumption that science exists exclusively in a terrestrial environment.
  • In some cases, using ocean examples can simply provide a more full understanding of a complex concept; in other cases, the omission of ocean examples can lead to misconceptions or even factual incorrectness. For example, referring to “organisms” as “plants, animals, and microorganisms” might lead learners to ignore the important ecological role of macro-algae, or to think that algae are plants, or worse yet, to never know that algae exist.
  • We are very pleased that finally (and rightfully) emphasis is being placed on understanding the causes and consequences of climate change. Rutgers is actively communicating the critical importance of the influence of the ocean on the climate, and vice-versa, the influence of the changing climate on the ocean.

– Janice McDonnell, SET Agent 4-H Youth Development


Ocean Themed Children’s Books

Below is a compiled list of children’s books that were recommended by marine educators throughout the US.

Reading Books:

  • Abby’s Aquarium Adventures by Heidi de Maine (Elementary)
  • Abby’s Aquarium Adventures II: Predators by Heidi de Maine (Elementary)
  • A Day in the Salt Marsh by Kevin Kutz (Elementary)
  • About Mollusks, About Fish, About Wetlands, About Crustaceans by Cathryn and John Sill (Elementary)
  • Suzanne Tate’s Nature Series – 34 books of different marine creatures (i.e., blue crabs, flat fish, oyster, manatee, etc.)
  • This is the Sea That Feeds Us by Robert F. Baldwin (Elementary)
  • Flotsam by David Wiesner

Coloring Books:

  • Who Lives in the Deep Blue Sea by Tammy Yee (Ron Hirschi developed information components for the Trust for Public Land’s MUDUP project in Puget Sound)

What books do you use in your classroom? Let us know.


March 29th – Next Ocean Lecture & Educators’ Night

Ever wonder why there are so many bacteria out there or whether they are all bad?
Interested in learning more about current New Jersey ecological research to teach your students?
Want to spice up your teaching of MARE’s “Bird Beak Buffet” or expand your teaching of “The Great Plankton Race”?

It is here! The next Ocean Lecture & Educators’ Night…

Who: Dr. Lee Kerkhof

When: March 29, 2012 ~ 6-8:30pm

Where: Rutgers Cook Campus, IMCS building

How do I learn more information and register? Visit the Dr. Lee Kerkhof Ocean Lecture & Educators’ Night page.

We hope to see you there!
Thanks, the MARE team


Registration Extended to Feb 17th for Rutgers Ocean Days

I wanted to make you aware that we have extended the deadline for registering for Rutgers Ocean Days to next Friday, February 17th.

What is Rutgers Ocean Days? – A chance to bring your students to Rutgers for a day of ocean science!
Rutgers Ocean Days brings Marine Activities Resources & Education (MARE) students (grades 3-8) from public, private, and informal science education programs to Rutgers University to celebrate their scientific accomplishments in the MARE program (April 2-3, 2012).

The goal of Rutgers Ocean Days is to excite and engage students in ocean science by providing a platform for them to share results from their science investigations with one another and Rutgers scientists. This event encourages students to develop questions and participate in an inquiry-based scientific investigation that builds upon the knowledge they have learned from the MARE curriculum.  Through their investigations, students will become actively engaged in ocean science rather than just learning the content, and will be able to act as science communicators and peer educators.

Bring your students and join in the fun! More information about the event can be found on the MARE website and in the attached flyer. Post the flyer around your school to encourage your colleagues to also bring their students.

Interested in registering for the event? Register Here

We hope to see you and your students in April!


Jan 19th Ocean Lecture & Educators’ Night Materials Posted

Background Information, Lesson Plans, and Dr. Jensen’s presentation now up on the MARE website

We have posted all of the materials from the Jan 19th Ocean Lecture & Educators’ Night on-line for you to use:

  1. Background Information: We compiled optional background information about the topics covered during the event. The categories include: Glossary & Acronym, Fisheries, Fish Science, and Black Sea Bass.
  2. Ocean Lecture Presentation: We posted the merged audio file and Dr. Jensen’s presentation slides so you can download the talk in its entirety or specific sections.
  3. Lesson Plans: We have compiled additions and adaptations to previous lesson plans to incorporate the fisheries, fish science, Black Sea Bass information that was presented during Dr. Jensen’s talk into your classroom. The lesson plans are provided as .pdf as well as a short description, list of grade levels, and relevant NJ Science Standards are highlighted. The categories include: Fisheries, Fish Science, and Black Sea Bass.

Enjoy! Let us know what you think or if there is additional information that would help you teach the material with your students.

-MARE Team


Comments on Ocean Lecture & Educator’s Night

Jason Draine posted this to the “Join us for a FREE Ocean Lecture & Educator’s Night” Event listing on the COSEE NOW website on 1/20/12. I wanted to copy the post over to the MARE blog to invite more of the community to join in the conversation. What do you think?

I just wanted to share how great the lecture was last night. There were three of us from Eisenhower School last night (Scott Pachuta, Carol Munn and myself) and we left feeling completely re-energized and motivated to implement what we learned.

First thing this morning was a reassurance of that feeling when Carol popped in my room before class. We began bouncing ideas of implementing the lesson “Black Sea Bass Encounter” and the cross-curricular opportunities. It was followed up with Mike (Griffin) and I meeting up in our Ocean Science room, where I filled him in on Dr. Jensen’s lecture and the potential collaboration.

The ever-pressing issue is continuing that “buzz” or motivation. How do we do this? What needs to be put in place? How do we sustain M.A.R.E.? I think last nights “experimental” lecture was a wonderful starting point. It makes sense to teach M.A.R.E. to educators the same way we would teach our students… small chunks of information. I have this moto I use in my Art class, “A little bit of information, a lot of application”.

To be able to process small amounts of information at a given time takes a lot of the intimidation our of teaching or implementing M.A.R.E. Last night was the perfect example. We talked about fisheries and the lesson was relevant to what we just learned, but that’s as far as it went, which allowed us to process and make sense of the information. We always have to remember that an abundance of our M.A.R.E. educators are not scientists and the language alone can be consuming and overwhelming.

I would like to see the M.A.R.E. educator nights happen bi-monthly. It would give us a month in between lectures to implement what we learned/ talked about and it would give us time to come back with “real” feedback.

I’m not sure if this is the place for what I just wrote, but I figured someone would read it. Thanks again for the opportunity.


Lawrence Hall of Science New Ocean Science Curriculum Materials

The Lawrence Hall of Science at the University of California at Berkeley worked extensively with scientists at Rutgers University and University of San Diego, the East Coast MARE team, scientists and educators at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and many others to develop the “GEMS® Ocean Science Sequence for Grades 3-5.”

The curriculum materials provide teachers and students opportunities to conduct their own investigations about the oceans. In addition, the materials highlight the oceanographic expedition of Dr.s Oscar Schofield, Josh Kohut, and Scott Glenn as an autonomous underwater glider makes the first crossing of the Atlantic Ocean!

All of the materials are grounded in the new national Science Standards.

To learn more about the “GEMS® Ocean Science Sequence for Grades 3-5” visit the website at


Phytoplankton in Your Classroom

Phytoplankton produce half of the oxygen we breathe and are the base of the ocean food web! So they provide a great topic for lessons about the oceans.

In the Xu et al. (2011) paper , researchers determined that it was the amount of light and nutrients that determined when and where we observe large blooms of phytoplankton from North Carolina up to Massachusetts (see the What’s Hot in Ocean Sciences article in the Winter 2011 newsletter for a summary of the paper or see below for a copy of the paper).

But what does that mean for your students? How can you incorporate some of this research into your classroom? Below I have developed a way to bring up these topics (Introducing these Topics) and then provided a list of multiple phytoplankton lesson plans that you can use with your students (Phytoplankton Lesson Plans).

Introducing these Topics

Take time to talk with your students about why it is important for phytoplankton to “stay” near the surface sunlight for photosynthesis. Help your students understand that the two things that phytoplankton, like all plants, need to survive are: energy from the sun and nutrients. Help the students understand that the need for sunlight and nutrients explains our observations of varying amounts of phytoplankton in different parts of the ocean and at different times of year.

First talk about the energy from the sun, ask the students if light from the sun penetrates everywhere equally in the ocean (no, only in the photic zone). Then ask the students if sunlight penetrates into the ocean to the same depth every day (no, if it is stormy). Ask the students if they think these two factors effect where and when phytoplankton bloom (yes). Then you can use a map of the Atlantic Ocean to show students one of the findings from the Xu et al. (2011) paper: that there are blooms in phytoplankton biomass off of the east coast in the spring (when it is sunnier than the winter).

Next talk with your students about nutrients. As organisms (e.g., phytoplankton, zooplankton, fishes) die in the ocean they often sink to the seafloor where they are decomposed into nutrients. This process results in a pool of nutrients near the seafloor. Use questions about what the students know about plankton sinking to help them realize that there would be a build up of nutrients at the bottom of the water column (the pool of nutrients). The nutrients do not float to the surface on their own, but rather are brought to the surface when the water column is mixed (meaning water at the surface mixes with water near the seafloor). Two main processes can drive this mixing: 1) the cooling of sea surface temperatures to temperatures more similar to the bottom waters (when there is a large difference in temperature this creates a thermocline in the water column and water of different temperatures “act” like two separate water bodies, aka no mixing) and 2) storms over the ocean churn up the water at the surface, which results in mixing of the water throughout the water column. The Xu et al. (2011) paper demonstrated that in the fall/winter seasons off the east coast both of these processes occur (cooling of sea surface temperatures and increased storm frequencies). Therefore, there is an increase in nutrients at the surface and thus an increase in the phytoplankton biomass at the surface.

• Map of Atlantic Ocean
• Global maps of sea surface temperature and chlorophyll from July 2002 to Oct 2011 from the NASA Earth Observatory (
• Maps of Pacific Ocean in May and November from the NASA Earth Observatory- Differences from Season to Season (

Phytoplankton Lesson Plans

1. THE GREAT PLANKTON RACE – phytoplankton diversity and sinking adaptations (Marine Activities Resources & Education (MARE), Lawrence Hall of Science, University of California at Berkeley,
2. THE GULF STREAM VOYAGE/BIOLOGY – changes in phytoplankton concentrations over space and time from satellite images (Stevens Institute of Technology, Center for Improved Engineering and Science Education (CIESE) 2004,
3. WHAT COLOR IS THE OCEAN: AND WHY DO YOU NEED A SATELLITE TO TELL YOU? – concentrations of phytoplankton and satellite imagery of oceans from space (SeaWiFS, and other resources at the SeaWiFS Teacher Resources website:
4. OCEAN PRODUCTIVITY ACTIVITY – variation of phytoplankton in space (University of Rhode Island,
5. WHEN IS DINNER SERVED? PREDICTING THE SPRING PHYTOPLANKTON BLOOM IN THE GULF OF MAINE– using satellite data to make predictions about phytoplankton in space and time (Earth Exploration Toolbook,
6. MEADOWS IN THE SEA – phytoplankton photosynthesis, food webs, phytoplankton diversity (“Whales in the Classroom: Oceanography”, Lawrence Wade, Singing Rock Press, Minnetonka, MN, 2005)
7. UPWELLING: THE UNDERWATER ELEVATOR – geology and geography that results in upwelling/plankton blooms, annual variation in phytoplankton (“Whales in the Classroom: Oceanography”, Lawrence Wade, Singing Rock Press, Minnetonka, MN, 2005)


Scientific Investigations: tips to do them, how to think like a scientists, and questions for the MARE Community

Science is both a body of knowledge about the world we live in and the processes used to understand that world. The trick is to help students learn both the content and the process, and student-directed scientific investigations can help!

First, scientific investigations involve more than just experiments (manipulating some factor in a system in order to see how that affects the outcome) because for many ideas experiments are impossible, inappropriate, or only part of the picture. Instead scientific investigations are often centered on making observations and comparisons. Therefore, there are many ways that scientific investigations can be incorporated into your classroom.

Tips about Scientific Investigations:

1. Remember there are no set steps or order of activities that define “good science.”
2. The question being investigated should 1) be connected to scientific concepts and methods and 2) provide opportunities for students to connect their knowledge, experience, and interests with the subject.
3. Effective investigations should be organized, structured activities that guide students in using scientific methods to work on meaningful problems.
4. Investigations typically unfold over weeks to months.
5. Use effective questions to subtly guide students toward certain insights and self-reflection about their previous and acquired knowledge throughout the investigation.
6. Try to encourage ideas to flow freely, students to articulate their “first draft thinking” and then revisit the ideas later in their investigation, and students to think critically about their classmates’ ideas.
7. The process of science is iterative, any point in the process leads to many possible next steps (known or unknown), and science lacks tidy endpoints.
8. Investigations generate raw data but those data must be analyzed and interpreted to develop a scientific argument about the investigation/question.

Thinking Like a Scientist:

A key part of a scientific investigation in the classroom is teaching the students how to think and act like scientists. The “Understanding Science: How Science Really Works” website ( created by the University of California – Berkeley has some great suggestions of what it looks like for students to be scientists:
1. Question what they observe. First they should ask general questions, and then limit the arena they explore by defining the problem to develop a question that can drive their investigation.
2. Investigate further. They should research what is currently known about the topic/question.
3. Articulate their expectations of the results. They should be skeptical and try to refute their own ideas of what will happen.
4. Seek out more evidence and make observations. They should choose a way to investigate their question, gather or create the materials, and collect the data.
5. Be open-minded. They should examine the raw data and process/analyze the data and change their mind if the evidence warrants it.
6. Think creatively. They should try to come up with alternate explanations for what they observe and reflect on their findings by thinking about what the results mean.
7. Communicate with others. They should talk with others about their ideas, questions, expectations, methods, raw data, analyzed data, and results (aka at many points during the investigation).

Also, on the “Understanding Science: How Science Really Works” website there are Teaching Resources broken out by grade level (K-2, 3-5, 6-8, 9-12, 13-16). The resources range from tips & strategies to lesson plans to educational research. Check it out and let us know what you think.

Questions for the MARE community:

1. What do scientific investigations look like in your classroom?
2. What are some techniques that you use to help students to act and think like scientists?
3. What helps you direct scientific investigations?
4. What hinders you from directing scientific investigations?
5. What was your favorite scientific investigation you have done with your students?

Let us know what you think…

* This year at Rutgers Ocean Days, we are asking MARE classrooms/clubs to complete a marine or aquatic related science investigation. For more information visit


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