Oceanography Science Projects for Elementary School Students

The world of the deep oceans is like a surreal, sci-fi dream with strange, dark-abiding creatures that float and swim between deep sea trenches and high sea mountains. Oceanography, or the study of the oceans, can open the eyes of elementary students to an aquatic ecosystem that spans over 70% of the Earth’s surface. Fun, instructive lab projects can be conducted to intrigue and capture a child’s mind on the fascinations of the marine world.

Primary Projects: Pre-K through 2nd Grade

1. Egg Floating: Physical oceanographers often measure buoyancy in the ocean waters, as the amount of buoyancy often changes from one location to another. Buoyancy deals with an amount of water being more or less dense than the water around it; cold air on the surface of the ocean can make the water at the surface more dense, and gravity will cause it to sink. This concept can be taught to elementary students using the floating egg lab.

You will need two jars, chicken eggs, a pitcher of water, and salt. Fill each jar mostly full of water, at even levels, but add about three spoonfuls of salt into one. Stir and keep adding salt until the water cannot dissolve the salt anymore. Set a raw egg in each jar of water and have the students write down observations. Ask them, “which jar’s water do you think is more dense or heavy?”

To further introduce the concept of buoyancy to the students, empty out the two jars. Fill both half full with water, add salt to one until it no longer can dissolve, add food coloring to the other fresh water jar. When you pour the fresh water on top of the salt water, have the students record their observations, answering which one, the fresh or salt water, they think is more dense or heavy (the fresh water should float on top of the salt water). Test the students’ knowledge of the ocean by asking them if the ocean has salty or fresh water. These two labs could easily lead into the study of oceanic organisms, compared to freshwater organisms.

2. Wave Bottles: A fun part of going to the beach in the summertime is jumping in the waves. Oceanographers study waves since these roller-coasters of water can drastically affect marine life and even the Earth’s climate. Waves are caused by the wind and can have varying frequency and speeds. The wave bottle project will allow your students to classify a wave’s crests and troughs. This lab can also lead into the study of ocean currents and the flow of water in the oceans.

For introducing waves, you can bring in a slinky to make a wave and explain what a crest and trough looks like. Have the students make their own waves. Next, fill a two liter bottle half full with baby oil and add food coloring. Fill the rest of the bottle with water. Tightly cap the bottle, turn it on its side, and rock gently. Crests and troughs will begin to develop in your wave bottle. The students can then draw waves of different intensity, labeling the crests and troughs.

3. Aquatic Animal Adaptations: Biological oceanographers and marine biologists need to be able to classify different ocean organisms to better understand the habitats needed for their survival. Certain organisms live in shallow, warmer waters where others can only survive in deep, cold water with little light. The students should have several books read to them on different ocean animals and their habitats, so the students possess prior knowledge to build upon.

To complete the adaptation project, have each student draw or cut out a picture of their favorite ocean animal. The students will then identify two adaptations possessed by that animal. For example, a blue whale has a large amount of body fat because it lives in colder waters. Prompting (such as “why does the jellyfish have a stinger?”) may be needed for younger grades if a student is struggling with coming up with adaptations. After each student has drawn a marine animal and listed two adaptations, the teacher can place the drawings on a class mural with similar organisms placed together. This is a great project to lead into different world habitats and food chains.

Upper Elementary Explorations: 3rd through 6th Grade

1. Ocean Floor Maps: Geological oceanographers are concerned with the different features of the ocean floor. The students can learn about different structures that exist, such as abyssal plains, oceanic trenches, seamounts, continental ridges, and continental slopes. After they have a good mental visualization of the ocean floor, have the students produce their own version, with this hands-on shoebox ocean floor project.

Each student will need a shoebox, clay or plaster of Paris, a ruler, bamboo skewers, and a marker. Allow the students to create their own ocean floor model, implementing different structures into the shoebox. On the lid of the shoebox, the student should make a grid, points being 4cm apart. With scissors, have the students punch a hole at each point on the grid. Then they can insert a bamboo skewer into the hole to see the depth of their ocean at different points, measuring and plotting the information on a graph. At the end, they will have their own geological data of the ocean floor that they constructed.

2. A Whaling Voyage: This science project has a thorough incorporation of language arts and history, centering around a whaling voyage of the ship, Lucy Ann, in 1847. Sailors depended on reliable wind patterns and ocean currents to save them time in their voyages, plotting wind speed and direction each hour. With this project, the students will become nineteenth century sailors, searching for “whaling grounds” and plotting their travels.

To begin, have each student plot the route of the Lucy Ann on a world map by giving them a list of the ship’s positions with dates (the Lucy Ann’s logbook can be found at http://www.sea.edu/academics/k12.asp?plan=whalingvoyage). They will need a previous lesson on latitude and longitude. The students can then measure with a ruler between each point on the map (1 minute of latitude equals 1 nautical mile); how many days elapsed between each point? To incorporate the language arts aspect into the project, have the students write a sentence or draw a picture displaying what events happened to the sailors of the ship based upon their writings in the logbook. Students can also draw the major ocean currents that may have affected the Lucy Ann’s voyage, hypothesizing when the ship was aided by these flowing currents and contrarily, when it was slowed down.

3. Sampling the Ocean Floor: Geological Oceanographers often cannot dive down to the deep ocean floor on a regular basis due to monetary expenses and needed, hi-tech equipment. How do they learn about the deepest parts of the ocean then? They use a system of “grabs” in which they scoop sediments from the ocean floor. Sediments vary at different locations and when studied, can tell an oceanographer a lot about currents, organisms, and the oceanic crust.

In this lab, the teacher will fill a large box with “sediments” (wrapped candies or even actual ocean sediments such as shells and rocks). Covering the top of the box with a towel, the students must conduct a series of blind grabs with salad thongs to retrieve ocean floor sediments from under the towel. Due to the expensive equipment used by oceanographers, the students only have a financial budget to conduct one dig each. Then the students can make graphs of the frequency of different sediments collectively obtained. Based on the samples collected, have the students make inferences about what the ocean floor is like. After unveiling the box, have the students record discrepancies based upon their inferences and the actual ocean floor. How does this affect the accuracy of our present knowledge of the deep ocean floor? What would help make the students’ inferences more accurate (i.e. collecting more sediments at each dig, being able to collect more than just once, etc)? Afterwards, the students can eat their candy sediments.

Many educational projects and lessons can be incorporated into the elementary science class when studying the ocean. Partly funded by the National Science Foundation, the Sea Education Association (SEA) has put together several award-winning oceanography labs for k-12 children at their www.sea.edu/academics/k12.asp website. A unit on the ocean can be a mysterious, exciting time of learning for elementary students as they discover more about an underwater world that has much left to be pioneered.