Facilitating Active Learning and Bridging Oceanographic Concepts by Exploring Ocean Acidification

Data Labs in the Classroom:

Teaching Tips from the Community

Dr. Natasha Gownaris, OOI Data Lab Fellow 2020


Natasha Gownaris watches a few penguins in the field.Hi everyone! My name is Tasha Gownaris and I teach at Gettysburg College, a small liberal arts college in Pennsylvania. At Gettysburg, hours from the ocean, I teach classes like Oceanography, Marine Ecology, and Fisheries Management.

Resources like OOI Ocean Data Labs have therefore been invaluable for connecting my students with real ocean science.

Approach to Teaching with Data

I am faculty in an interdisciplinary Environmental Studies department with concentrations in the social sciences and humanities as well as in the natural sciences. As a result, some of my students are less comfortable with quantitative concepts and data interpretation than others. One of my passions as a teacher is helping students to improve their data literacy skills, even if they are not pursuing a career in the sciences.

In my 200- and 300-level classes, I use the statistical program R with my students. In my 100-level classes, I use OOI Ocean Data Labs to help students become comfortable with different types of figures and with real (sometimes messy) data. The graphics are aesthetically pleasing and interactive, both of which improve the student (and teacher!) experience.

This blog post describes a lesson plan that I developed about ocean acidification off the coast of Oregon centered on one of the OOI Data Explorations from the Properties of Seawater collection, Changes in pH and pCO2.


In this activity, students use online data widgets to build connections across oceanographic disciplines – physics (upwelling, wind patterns), chemistry (dissolved gases, pH), and biology (photosynthesis, acidification impacts, fisheries). Prior to completing the activity, students should have a basic understanding of photosynthesis and respiration, ocean-atmosphere exchange, ocean CO2 chemistry, and the Coriolis effect and Eckman transport.

I’ve used this lesson plan in both intro (non-majors) classes and in upper-level (majors) classes. For upper-level classes, I shorten the assignment and don’t ask students about axis labels or other basic data interpretation questions. My classes are relatively small (18 to 36 students) and I have used this lab in both in-person and synchronous online formats (with breakout rooms and shared Google Docs).

You can download my lesson plan and student worksheet; I’m happy to email you the answer key for the worksheet (ngownari@gettysburg.edu).

a screenshot of pH versus pCO2 Data Exploration

Changes in pH vs. pCO2 interactive data widgets

Learning Goals
  • Building connections across oceanographic disciplines
  • Differentiating between human-driven and natural variations in ocean CO2
  • Interpreting several types of data and figures (regressions, time series data, and spatial data)
Lesson Planning and The Learning Cycle

I explicitly considered each component of the learning cycle to structure this lesson plan.

  • Students are invited to the topic using a podcast episode on ocean acidification and fish behavior and an engaging visualization of annual CO2 patterns.
  • They explore how atmospheric CO2 levels vary over long time scales by examining Mauna Loa Trends and compare atmospheric CO2 levels to ocean CO2 levels off the coast of Oregon using the Data Exploration Changes in pH and pCO2.
  • During the concept invention phase, students examine wind patterns throughout the year at this location using the Northwest Association of Networked Ocean Observing Systems Mapper.
  • Students apply this new knowledge to describe the drivers of the seasonal CO2 and pH patterns off of Oregon.
  • To reflect on what students have learned, these concepts can be linked to fisheries and marine conservation in a class discussion. For example, though upwelling can lead to highly productive forage fish fisheries, it can also lead to reduced productivity of shellfish farms in the Pacific Northwest (as discussed in the podcast used during the invitation phase).
Student Experience

The anonymous survey that I asked students to complete (see Teaching Tips) consisted of sixteen questions that assessed how prepared the students thought I was for the activity, how effective peer learning was during the activity, and how engaged the student felt during the activity. It used a six-point Likert Scale where 1 = Strong Disagree and 6 = Strongly Agree.

For this activity, the average on the survey was a 4.87 and all questions had an average of 4.66 or greater. Overall, the feedback was very positive, with several students even explicitly mentioning that they enjoyed the OOI Ocean Data Labs on my course evaluations at the end of the semester. Early in the semester, students did request that I spend more time going over the answers to these activities in class. Because I asked for feedback after each activity, I was able to correct this during the semester.

Teaching Tips

Evidence-Based Teaching with Students: During the first period of my classes, I define active learning for students and discuss how it benefits all students and leads to more inclusive teaching. I show examples from the biology education literature when I do so. I think this does help to gain buy-in from students who might otherwise think that active learning is less effective than lecturing.

Asking for Feedback: I used ASPECT (Assessing Student Perspective of Engagement in Class Tool), a survey developed by Wiggins et al. (2017) to track student engagement in each in-class activity. I found it to be very useful in improving activities throughout the semester and comparing engagement across activities at the end of the semester. I recommend having students take the survey as part of the assignment or response rates can be low.

Using the Learning Cycle to Structure Lesson Plans: I found that writing out my specific plans for each component of the learning cycle helped me to be more realistic about time management in class. I know that future me will thank me too! One of the assignments in my upper-level marine ecology class is for students to work together to create their own lesson plans following the learning cycle format. They seemed to love this assignment (based on yet another anonymous feedback survey!) and the results were really impressive.

Download this video during which Tasha walks you through the lesson plan and shares teaching tips for this activity.

References Cited:

Wiggins, B.L., Eddy, S.L., Wener-Fligner, L., Freisem, K., Grunspan, D.Z., Theobald, E.J., Timbrook, J. and Crowe, A.J. 2017. ASPECT: A survey to assess student perspective of engagement in an active-learning classroom. CBE—Life Sciences Education. DOI: 10.1187/cbe.16-08-0244