The ocean is a dynamic place. Ocean currents transport important quantities, such as nutrients, heat and pollutants around the world, often with direct consequence to humans. This unit introduces students to forces that force ocean currents, and allows students to explore what thermohaline and wind-driven currents in the ocean look like and why they are important. The material should take roughly 1.5 to 2 weeks to cover and culminates in an experience that allows the students to act as NOAA oceanographers, using a real NOAA model and their knowledge of ocean currents to remediate an oil spill.

  • Students understand how ocean currents work by investigating density, the Coriolis effect and wind-driven currents through hands on activities.
  • Students can relate density changes and wind to currents observable in the ocean.
  • Students predict how changing conditions affect ocean currents.
  • Using an actual NOAA simulation model and their knowledge of ocean currents, students will be able to design a response to a simulated oil spill.
  • Ocean currents never change, but are persistent features of the ocean.
  • Currents are caused by water flowing in the ocean downhill “like a river”.
  • Ocean currents only affect things living in the ocean.
  • Whichever way the wind blows, the current moves the same way.
  • Water at depth flows the same way as water at the surface.
  • This unit consists of 5 lessons focused on ocean currents and physical oceanography. Each lesson contains at least one hands-on activity with instructions or a worksheet for the students. A PowerPoint with lecture content and activity guidance for the teacher is also provided along with a 5E chart. Students will learn about ocean currents in the context of the forces that drive them – density differences, the Coriolis force, and wind stress.
  • Students explore how fluids of different densities interact in a density float (lesson 1) and how density changes at the surface can cause currents (lesson 2). Students then learn about the Coriolis force and experience its affect on a simulated earth (lesson 3), and how Coriolis interacts with wind stress to drive surface currents (lesson 4). Finally, students apply their knowledge of ocean currents and use a NOAA simulation tool to predict and model an oil spill (lesson 5).
  • This lesson introduces the concept of density and how fluids of different densities interact. The lesson includes a PowerPoint presentation (with lecture notes) and involves a classroom demonstration of a density float, and a lab exercise where students will explore how ocean water properties affect the density.
  • Materials needed for the demonstration and lab include:
          - Demonstration: Corn Syrup, Milk, Water, Vegetable Oil, Rubbing Alcohol, Ping-Pong Ball,
             Metal Bolt, Plastic Die (regular game die), 2 x 500 ml beakers, 5 x 100 ml graduated
             cylinders, Electronic Scale, Food Coloring.
          - Lab: (Each group needs the following) 2 x 500 ml beakers, 1000 ml beaker, stirring rod,
             1 tsp salt, warm water, cold water, red and yellow food coloring, corrugated
             cardboard, scissors.
  • Students will explore how changes in density create currents that sink to the bottom of the ocean and how this affects heat transport around the world. This lesson includes a PowerPoint presentation (with lecture notes) and a lab exercise to help students explore what a density driven current looks like.
  • Materials needed for the lab include: 2 x 500 ml beakers, salt, water, colored ice (NOTE: Teachers will need to freeze food colored water before the lesson).
  • This lesson helps students explore how observing straight-line motion from a rotating reference frame makes the motion appear curved. Students are introduced to Newtonian motion in a fixed reference frame through a brief exercise and PowerPoint presentation, then see what the Coriolis force looks like on earth (a rotating frame) in a lab exercise and decide when the Coriolis force is significant by calculating the Rossby number.
  • Materials needed for the activity and lab:
          - Activity (each group needs): “Newton golf board,” four straws, marble.
          - Lab (each group needs): One print out of “Coriolis Lab Earth”, pencil, tape,
             paperboard, scissors, water.
  • This lesson tells the story of how a great explorer noticed something interesting, told a scientist who gave the problem to his student. The result is how we understand wind-driven current. Students will hear this story and then explore how Ekman (the student) solved the problem through a lab experience. The lesson includes a PowerPoint presentation (with lecture notes), the story of the Fram, and the lab exercise.
  • Materials needed for the lab: (Each group needs the following) Arrows printed from “Ekman Lab arrows”, Paperboard, Compass circle printed from “Ekman Lab compass” and ruler.
  • This final lesson summarizes key concepts in a quiz-show format, and then provides a lab experience in which students to act as NOAA oceanographers responding to an oil spill. They will use the model and their knowledge of winds and ocean currents to predict, model, and then plan a response to an environmental disaster. A PowerPoint presentation (with lecture notes) is provided, along with a teacher guide to the simulation software (see GNOME Help File) and a lab worksheet.
  • Materials needed for the lab: Computers for each group running the NOAA GNOME modeling software. The software is free to download by clicking the “download/install” menu item from the GNOME home page.
  • This unit is intended for use in a 9th grade earth science or marine science classroom. The lessons are designed to build successively, and should be taught in order. Each lesson is intended to take about 90 minutes for a class of about 20-30 students, however, depending on the level of the class, some may take longer. The Density and Coriolis lessons introduce potentially confusing topics, and instructors may wish to break these lessons into two days. If this is the case, saving the density lab and the coriolis lab with Rossby calculations for the second day is recommended.
  • Prerequisites:
          - Students should have a basic algebra background and understand ratios.
          - Students should be familiar with maps, and be able to describe longitude and latitude.
          - Students should have a basic understanding of forces (what happens when one or two
             forces are applied to an object, and what “opposing” forces mean).
          - Students should have basic lab experience measuring liquid volumes and masses.
  • Lesson notes (included in the PowerPoint) and the 5E documents provide various means of assessing the students.
  • Lesson 5 is the culminating lesson and includes a quiz in the PowerPoint that can be administered as an exam individually, or as an activity in groups.
  • The GNOME simulation experience includes an extensive lab report that can be turned in and graded to show students’ understanding of the overall material.
  • Each lesson PowerPoint includes detailed teaching notes to supplement the slides. Further external background information is included in the teaching notes where appropriate. Teaching tips and notes are also proved in the 5E documentation included for each lesson.
  • Generally, the unit guides students through a progressive understanding of the forces that cause currents to flow (density differences and wind), the types of flows they produce (thermohaline circulation and wind-driven surface current) and why ocean currents are important to understand in the context of pollution.
  • HS-ESS2-4: Use a model to describe how variations in the flow of energy into and out of Earth’s systems result in changes in climate.
  • HS-LS2-7: Design, evaluate, and refine a solution for reducing the impacts of human activities on the environment and biodiversity.
  • HS-ESS3-1: Construct an explanation based on evidence for how the availability of natural resources, occurrence of natural hazards, and changes in climate have influenced human activity.
  • HS-ESS3-4: Evaluate or refine a technological solution that reduces impacts of human activities on natural systems.
  • ETS1B: Developing Possible Solutions.
  • ESS2D: Weather and Climate.
  • ESS3D: Global Climate Change.

R/V Palmer (Veronica Tamsitt)

Density Lab
Lesson Specifics
  • Grade Level: 9th grade earth science or marine science classroom
  • Time Frame: 1.5 to 2 weeks

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