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What is ocean literacy?

By: Tina Miller-Way / Published: Feb 14,  2019

One of the focus areas for Sea Grant at the national level is environmental literacy. We have discussed the definition of this term in these blogs before, but the mission of the National Sea Grant College Program is to enhance the practical use and conservation of coastal, marine and Great Lakes resources. So, is there such a thing as coastal, marine and Great Lakes literacy? And the answer is definitely yes, though it is known as ocean literacy!

In the mid-1990s, there was a groundswell of concern from educators and ocean scientists about the lack of ocean sciences in the National Science Education Standards (1996), the guidelines for K-12 science education. Since many states base their science standards on accepted national standards, and the state standards drive classroom activity, this resulted in a lack of concepts about the ocean in K-12 textbooks, curricular materials and testing materials. This led to a generation of students who were not exposed to the beauty and wonder of the ocean, the importance of the ocean in their lives, and the impacts of their activities on the ocean. 

Ocean Literacy Principles are taught in science programs at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab.
Ocean Literacy Principles are taught in science programs at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab.

In the first decade of the 2000s, this concern grew into a recognition of the need for action and for a coherent framework of ocean concepts and topics. The formal document, Ocean Literacy: The Essential Principles of Ocean Sciences K-12 (2004), was the result of years of work from hundreds of formal educators, researchers, education policymakers, science coordinators, informal educators and federal agency representatives.

The Ocean Literacy Principles (OLP) list 7 big ideas (the principles) that the group determined embodied critical information about the ocean.

For example, Ocean Literacy Principle #1 states: The Earth has one big ocean with many features.

Under each of these 7 broad statements are listed several fundamental concepts. For example, for OLP #6, The oceans and humans are inextricably interconnected, there are 7 concepts listed including: a. The ocean affects every human life. It supplies freshwater and nearly all Earth’s oxygen. The ocean moderates the Earth’s climate, influences our weather and affects human health; and f. Much of the world’s population lives in coastal areas. Coastal regions are susceptible to natural hazards (tsunamis, hurricanes, cyclones, sea level change and storm surges).

Ocean Literacy's Seven Big Ideas

Principle #1: The Earth has one big ocean with many features.

Principle #2: The ocean and life in the ocean shape the features of Earth.

Principle #3: The ocean is a major influence on weather and climate.

Principle #4: The ocean made the Earth habitable.

Principle #5: The ocean supports a great diversity of life and ecosystems.

Principle #6: The ocean and humans are inextricably interconnected.

Principle #7: The ocean is largely unexplored.

-Ocean Literacy Website

Space here does not permit the listing of all of the principles' associated fundamental concepts, but I urge you to visit the Ocean Literacy Networks’ website and read them all. There’s even a brochure that can be downloaded and used to guide thought, discussion or the development of educational activities.  

The development of the Ocean Literacy Principles is a fascinating story and there’s much more that can be shared from the impact of this effort (new textbooks, new funding programs), to the propagation of this approach to other science fields (climate literacy principles, Earth science literacy principles) and to addressing the initial problem of a lack of ocean content in state science standards. For the education team of the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium, the OLP serve as a guide to help connect our activities in Sea Grant focus areas to state science standards.

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