Research Summary

Questions as indicators of ocean literacy: students’ online asynchronous discussion with a marine scientist

Leveraging Online Discussions with a Marine Scientist to Enhance Students’ Ocean Literacy

International Journal of Science Education

The ocean is an ecosystem that encompasses most of the living space on Earth. It plays a crucial role in supporting the health of the planet as well as the livelihood of humans. Currently, about a third of the carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted by human activities dissolves in the ocean and makes the seawater more acidic—a phenomenon referred to as ocean acidification (OA). If humans do not respond to this environmental issue by rapidly and drastically decreasing CO2 emissions, OA will have dramatic consequences for marine ecosystems and all that depends on those systems. Raising people’s awareness of and knowledge about such issues, or enhancing their ocean literacy, is essential if they are to understand the impact of their behaviors on the ocean, as well as the ocean’s impact on them.

This study explores how an online discussion about OA between a marine scientist and high school students could promote ocean literacy in an instructional setting. The researchers focused on the questions that the high school students asked the scientists in order to better understand the possibilities for enhancing students’ ocean literacy in school through such activities. Since formulating a wellcrafted, insightful question is a demanding task involving transforming existing experiences and knowledge in the light of new ideas, the researchers contend that the students’ questions can be indicators of their knowledge and reasoning about a certain topic.

Three high school classes in two U.S. schools (61 students total) participated in this instructional activity as part of their regular class. First, the instructors introduced the students to the marine environment and the issue of ocean acidification through a virtual laboratory. The students went through a simulation to virtually grow sea urchin larvae in water with two different levels of acidity, and they compared the urchin larvae’s growth rate. In the second activity, the students watched an online lecture (hosted on the VoiceThread platform) by an OA researcher. During the lecture, the scientist framed the results of the virtual experiment using a social and economic context. Finally, students and researchers engaged in an asynchronous discussion based on the students’ questions.

The researchers found that the students’ questions provided insights into how students combine their pre-existing experiences and insights with new information from the online lecture while reasoning about OA. The study also provided insights into how the students integrated their previous knowledge with what they encountered during the instructional activity.

This activity offers a relatively simple, affordable way to bring to the classroom valid, up-to-date science, which is often missing in school science curricula as well as from the expertise of classroom teachers. Scientists have relevant, cutting-edge knowledge about their fields; they also have a deep understanding of and experience with how their fields emerged as well as what kinds of studies have contributed to current knowledge. Facilitating direct contact between students and scientists, regardless of the teachers’ levels of expertise, allows students to participate in relevant scientific discourse and culture.

Because scientists may not have time to visit schools and/or be able to spend time in student-focused discussions on a schedule convenient to the students, this research suggests that a virtual platform for facilitating asynchronous interactions between students and scientists could provide similar benefits. VoiceThread, for example, allows scientists to prepare and record one online lecture, which can be distributed widely. The scientists, or research team members, can address the students’ questions when they have time. This interactive online lecture format also has the advantage of providing more time for the students to become acquainted with the topic during the time that they craft questions and reflect on their responses.

The Bottom Line

Virtual instructional platforms and activities, such as VoiceThread, offer an affordable way to bring relevant, timely marine science to the classroom through firsthand interaction with a marine scientist. Because the interaction is asynchronous, students have more time to watch the marine scientist’s lecture and then contextualize and mobilize their pre-existing knowledge while crafting questions for the scientist. The holistic expertise of the marine scientist allows students to explore and reason around ideas and aspects of natural sciences that go beyond the range offered in traditional school settings.