For several years the trend in public education has been to emphasize common standards at the state and federal levels. In science these include important concepts in the fields of earth science, biology, chemistry, and physics. These concepts can easily be illustrated with examples from the marine environment. Using the ocean as a classroom resource can interest and motivate students while covering the topics that all students should know.
There are several basic ecological principles as they apply to the marine environment. From habitat analysis to the monitoring of oceanic chemistry, it is important that students understand the basics of ocean science for the simple reasons that the ocean is critical for our survival and an educated population is needed to make good decisions on public policy.
So what should everyone know about the ocean? Looking at it from an ecological point of view, I think there are several facts which we should all understand. I ask my students in coastal ecology if they have thanked a diatom today. I get puzzled looks and then explain that the microscopic phytoplankton that includes several groups such as diatoms and dinoflagellates, are responsible for the production of most of the world’s oxygen. Of course this comes as a big surprise because they have studies the process of photosynthesis in the more visible land plants. And yet it’s these microscopic plant-like organisms in the ocean which can also photosynthesize and release a majority of the world’s oxygen supply. And one of the groups, the dinoflagellates, includes the species that cause red tide.
Another important topic is the ecological significance of salt marshes. Most young people view marshes as odorous areas that breed mosquitoes and greenhead flies. However, marshes are protected ecosystems. They support our commercial finfish and shellfish industries by being very productive through the growth of several plant species such as cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora). This plant, which grows along the edges of marshes, is grazed on directly by animal consumers or indirectly in the form of decomposed organic material called detritus.
Marshes help protect upland areas from erosion due to storm damage and flooding. They protect the drinking water supply from salt water intrusion. They also serve as places where animals can hide from predators, raise their young, and find a source of food. It is essential that everyone on Cape Cod understand the importance of this ecosystem and ways of protecting the marsh system.
Environmental literacy requires an educated citizenry that can apply basic science principles to contemporary issues. Knowing the science improves the likelihood that good decisions to conserve these resources will be made.
Copyright Gil Newton 2009 Thanks to Chris Dumas for logo image.