Helping Educators Develop Young Ocean Problem-Solvers by Corrine Steever

Myrtle the green sea turtle
Myrtle, the green sea turtle. Photo credit: W. Chappell

Informal science centers are in perfect alignment to provide rich NGSS supports using three-dimensional learning and real-world connections. When an educator hears about professional development opportunities at the New England Aquarium (NEAq), they are typically “hooked” by the idea that they may get some great lessons about ocean animals for the classroom while gazing at Myrtle, our 550 lb. green sea turtle. While the “hook” might be Myrtle, the “reel” is linking rich, real-world, accessible phenomena at the NEAq with NGSS-supported lessons for the classroom. Informal science centers like NEAq create models and analyze real-world phenomena using exhibits and research, and are a perfect resource when introducing phenomena in the classroom. NEAq is also a conservation-oriented organization, and our goal is to establish connections to nature, strengthen relationships, develop systems thinking, build skills for civic participation, provide diversity of participation and access, and promote hope, self-efficacy, and confidence. That is why we work to increase the capacity of educators, both in and out of the classroom, using the ocean as a means of providing three-dimensional learning opportunities that align with our goals.

To do this, we restructured how we run our professional development courses to start with a deep exploration of the standards that our courses will support, and then modeling what a lesson or activity could look like. By working with educators to focus on the content and practices of a standard, it helps define what the students will be learning, as well as how they will be learning. The Next Generation Science Standards does this. The NSTA website displays the standards in a way that lets you highlight the Practices, Disciplinary Core Ideas, and Crosscutting Concepts that go with each performance expectation. Using highlighters and printouts of standards, educators in small groups work through this themselves. This allows for great discussions on how they would have students engage in experiences that support the standard(s) we are working on. Where the real supports lie, though, is then modeling what this could look like in a series of activities built on real-world experiences that support why students should be learning these concepts.

An example of this is in our Full STEAM Ahead: Ocean Adventures workshop series for early educators. During the Ocean and Us class, our goal was to introduce lessons that support the following K–2 Performance Expectations:

Performance Expectations


Construct an argument supported by evidence for how plants and animals (including humans) can change the environment to meet their needs.


Use a model to represent the relationship between the needs of different plants and animals (including humans) and the places they live.


Communicate solutions that will reduce the impact of humans on the land, water, air, and/or other living things in the local environment.


Use observations to describe patterns of what plants and animals (including humans) need to survive.


Use materials to design a solution to a human problem by mimicking how plants and/or animals use their external parts to help them survive, grow, and meet their needs.


Ask questions, make observations, and gather information about a situation people want to change to define a simple problem that can be solved through the development of a new or improved object or tool.


Analyze data from tests of two objects designed to solve the same problem to compare the strengths and weaknesses of how each performs.

We started the day with an icebreaker about systems. Since systems is a Crosscutting Concept that is within many of the standards addressed, we wanted to begin by building a deeper understanding of biological systems. Small groups were given an image of the same tide pool ecosystem inspired by Istvan Banyai’s picture book Zoom. Some groups had a very “zoomed-in” version of the tide pool (such as a tide pool animal), while others had a very “zoomed-out” coastline view. Everyone else observed images at a scale in between those two versions. Each group defined the boundary of their image, then discussed the “living components” of the organisms in the pictures, what they needed to survive (food, water, shelter), and what was flowing in and out of the system (sun, water, air, food). Each shared their image and what they came up with. This allowed for the “aha” moment when the educators noticed that all their pictures were just “zoomed in or out” versions of one another, allowing for not only an understanding of how individuals fit into a large system, but also how the larger system impacts individuals.

Then throughout the day, we built lessons from a systems framework, using an image of a New England river with a dam and an arrow pointing farther up the river, and the prompt “Salmon swim upriver to spawn here.” After allowing educators to share their observations and questions, we created many of the lessons around this phenomenon, while answering most of the questions that the group came up with through engaging in activities. While at NEAq, we visit the salmon exhibit to observe how salmon swim and move, but we also show that for those without access to a facility like NEAq, such investigations can be done using videos and books, and by making models of fish with potatoes and different fin shapes using craft materials.

When modeling and seeking to understand systems, we know that it is important to understand human impact on systems, and we can draw on our knowledge to train educators on how to communicate using values and solutions. Teachers develop an understanding that we use rivers, just like other plants and animals do, but sometimes our actions can have unintended consequences. Teachers learn how humans have built fish ladders to aid movement of fish past dams, then engage in engineering activities to build models of fish ladders, eventually doing this with learners to help them increase their hope and self-efficacy. It also boosts educators’ confidence to teach even their youngest learners about their connection to the natural world.

teachers participating in Full STEAM Ahead workshop: fish ladder model
teachers participating in Full STEAM Ahead workshop: fish stock assessment
Teachers participating in the Full STEAM Ahead: Ocean and Us workshop. Above is a fish ladder model; below is an activity to aid understanding of fish stock assessment.

We live on a blue planet, and know it is important to inspire problem-solvers to act on behalf of the ocean. This is just one example of the many ways that we are trying to support educators at the New England Aquarium to develop ocean problem-solvers through three-dimensional learning opportunities.

What are some ways you are using real-world phenomena to engage in three-dimensional learning experiences? Are you able to use an informal science center near you, or are you working at an informal science center that provides opportunities for educators?

Corrine Steever is the Teacher Services Supervisor at the New England Aquarium in Boston, Massachusetts. She provides teacher professional development programs that enhance participants’ understanding of ocean science, and cross-curricular connections that support multiple ways to engage their students in STEM practices. The New England Aquarium also provides free resources to educators through their Teacher Resource Center. Steever is a board member of the Massachusetts Association of Science Teachers and Massachusetts Marine Educators.

Note: This article is featured in the October issue of Next Gen Navigator, a monthly e-newsletter from NSTA delivering information, insights, resources, and professional learning opportunities for science educators by science educators on the Next Generation Science Standards and three-dimensional instruction.  Click here to sign up to receive the Navigator every month.

Visit NSTA’s NGSS@NSTA Hub for hundreds of vetted classroom resourcesprofessional learning opportunities, publicationsebooks and more; connect with your teacher colleagues on the NGSS listservs (members can sign up here); and join us for discussions around NGSS at an upcoming conference.

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5 Responses to Helping Educators Develop Young Ocean Problem-Solvers by Corrine Steever

  1. Matthew Jacobson says:


    I am Matthew Jacobson, a pre-service teacher from Wartburg College. I really enjoyed reading your article! I enjoyed how the activities were hands-on and engaging, as this will help student’s experience and sets a positive tone for learning and being able to remember the experience better. I have two questions, in what ways do you assess students’ deeper understanding of Biology? Also, do you prefer to use summative assessment, formative assessment, or both? I also like that the learning is coming through multiple forms of learning styles, so each student will learn something and students will be able to connect to the topic easier.

    Thank you,

    Matthew Jacobson
    Wartburg College ‘20
    Elementary Education
    K-8 Music Endorsement

    • Hello Matthew,
      Thank you so much for your comment and questions. I will say that because I am mostly working with teachers, and not in the classroom, I do not get the opportunity to assess students’ learning at the elementary level. With that said, we do use summative assessment with the teachers during the workshops (using concept maps, checking back to our initial questions to see if they have an answer, and/or KWL charts as just some examples). We use those as a way to model what it can look like with the students in the classroom. By having them design and create a final product, as in this case, the fish ladder models, I find is also a good way of assessing the students understanding through their explanation of what they created.

  2. Andrew Black says:

    My name is Andrew Black, I am a pre-service teacher at Wartburg College.
    Your article caught my eye because I am particularly interested in this topic and I think it’s an incredibly relevant topic to teach our youth. I love the idea that we’re creating students to solve new problems and observe the human impact as well. I think it’s an awesome topic to dissect. I really like your list of expectations/ standards I think if given those I feel I could make something out of them and make a FUN and ENGAGING lesson/unit out of it. I loved that you included how you want to inspire the teachers and the learners. I agree, I think this is a subject we could fit into our classrooms more and I really think students would thrive with it!

    Thank you,
    Andrew Black
    Wartburg College”20
    Elementary Education Major
    Reading Endorsement

    • Hello Andrew,
      I am so glad that you found this topic so relevant and interesting, and really appreciate wonderful pre-service teachers like you that are providing the tools and skills to our next generation of classroom teachers! If you are ever interested in finding more free resources to share with your pre-service teachers, I am more than happy to share what we have in the Teacher Resource Center or

  3. Dan DeBaun says:

    This is a great idea, and sorely needed. If we want to change how our species impacts the globe, we need to start with educating our children properly. Ocean problem solvers seems like the right move for making future positive impacts on our largest bodies of water.

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