What Every Student Ought to Know About the Oceans
The Oceanographer’s Perspective

Robert Stewart
Texas A&M University

Given at the National Marine Educators Association Annual Meeting
Saint Petersburg, Florida
19–22 July 2004


I have been working with the National Marine Educators Association's ad-hoc Committee on National Standards and with six senior oceanographers to outline what every high-school student ought to know about the oceans on graduation. The scientists have produced a document which will be opened for comments and revisions by all who have an interest in the topic, especially teachers. What is appropriate, what is not? Is it complete? At what level ought the material be taught? The document will eventually be used as a supplement to the national standards.

The senior oceanographers include Wolf Berger (Scripps Institution of Oceanography), Daniel Baden (U. North Carolina, Willmington), Penny Chisholm (MIT), Ted Moore (University of Michigan), George Philander (Princeton University), and Gary Thomas (RSMAS, U. Miami). All have helped produce summary documents of knowledge in their field, and they are widely respected by their colleagues.

What Should Students Know About the Ocean?

The figure below, from Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, shows divers studying the sea floor, sea life, and geology.

underwater illustration from a Jules Verne novel, 20000 leagues under the sea

The next figure, similar to many found in recent oceanography textbooks, shows divers observing the same things as in the Jules Verne figure.

divers swimming above the ocean bottom

What Should Students Know About the Ocean?

Contributing to the Report

Why Teach Oceanography?

What Do We Need To Teach If These Are Our Goals?

What Changes?

What's Out What's In
Static, separate systems: Dynamic interacting systems:
Hydrosphere, lithosphere, atmosphere. Earth system science.
Animals living in niches. Animals creating niches.
Plants and animals. Microbes.
Inanimate earth indifferent to life. Living earth formed by life, and modified by
Men on ships, and in space. ROV, AUV, robotic satellites.
Deep submersibles. Subsea observing systems.
Mathematical calculations. Computer modelling.

Interacting Systems

Interacting Systems

What's wrong with this picture of the hydrological cycle?

Consider the following illustration of the hydrological cycle. I picked this illustration only because it was handy. It is typical of dozens of others in textbooks.

Why is it wrong?

Oceans and Climate

The figure shows earth's carbon cycle, highlighting the role of the oceans and the vast quantities of carbon stored in the ocean's waters, and the large fluxes into and out of the ocean, which are far larger than the input of carbon into the air by the burning of fossil fuels.

Earth's Carbon Cycle

Abrupt Climate Change

Biological Oceanography

The Oceanic Biological Pump

Image shows microbial food web in the ocean: phytoplankton absorbing sunlight, zooplankton eating phytoplankton, bacteria consuming living and dead plankton and returning nutrients to the sea as they die. Some carbon sinks to the seafloor.

Microbial Food Web

The following image shows the microbial food web, which dominates the fluxes of carbon, nitrogen, and other elements in the ocean.

Importance of Modeling the Oceans

Oceanographers use Computers

What's Left Out

Instead of going to sea, many oceanographers, such as Lee Fu below, receive data from satellites, drifters, and other autonomous systems at sea.

"Nowadays, at the forefront of oceanographic research, manned submersibles have probably just passed their peak of paradigm reign, like railroads many decades ago…

"Now we can cut the ultimate tether—the one that binds our questioning intellect to vulnerable human flesh. Through telepresence, a mind detaches itself from the body’s restrictions and enters the abuss with ease, and with lightening-quick fiber optic nerves. ...

"Our minds can now go it alone, leaving the body behind." — Ballard (2000)

The Next Generation of Oceanographers

John Breen, of the Topex/Poseidon Flight Contral Team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, shown at work below, belongs to the new generation of oceanographers. Working at a computer terminal, he helps collect oceanographic data from a autonomus system, the Topex/Poseidon satellite orbiting 1300 km above the ocean.

A New generation of Ocean Educators

Bill Patzert, shown below in his office at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, educations billions throughout the world about El Nino through Cable Network News.

How Are We Doing? Not Very Well!

Public Policy and Science


Ballard, R. D. (2000). The Eternal Darkness: A Personal History of Deep-Sea Exploration, Princeton University Press.

Barber, R. T. and A. K. Hilting (2000). In: 50 Years of Ocean Discovery. Washington DC: National Academy Press: 11–21.

Broecker, W. S. (2003). "Does the trigger for abrupt climate change reside in the ocean or in the atmosphere." Science 300(5625): 1519–1522.

Ducklow, H. (2000). In: Microbial Ecology of the Oceans. John Wiley: 85–120.

Hardin, G. (1968). "The tragedy of the commons." Science 162 (3859): 1243–1248.

Munk, W. (2000). In: 50 Years of Ocean Discovery. Washington DC: National Academy Press: 44–50.

ZoBell, C. E. and H. C. Upham (1944). Bull. Scripps Inst. Ocean. 5(2): 239–292.

Revised on: 20 September, 2004

Revised on: 26 January, 2005

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