Ocean Pollution & its effect on aquatic animals

Author(s): Mary Matyskiela, Lani Keller

Lesson Overview

Grade level(s):

Elementary School (K-5), Kindergarten, Grade 1, Grade 2, Grade 3


Biology/Life Science



Big ideas(s):

Human-made pollution has negative consequences for the birds, fish, and marine mammals that live in the ocean.

Vocabulary words:

pollution, oil spill,

What you need:

a plastic water/soda bottle for each student, blue food coloring for the water, oil to add to the water bottle (sesame oil works especially well), a "pollution mix" that include red and green food coloring, sprinkles & mayonnaise, funnel to add pollutants to bottle, paper towels, a bead that will sink (bottom-dwelling animal), a piece of foam that will float (surface mammal), two identical feathers, clear glasses with oil and water.


Students brainstorm as a class about pollution and then individually make their own mini-ocean.  Then we all got on the floor in a circle for the feather demonstration.



Time needed:

10 minutes for pollution brainstorm

1/2 hour for model oceans

15 min for feather demo

Author Name(s): 
Mary Matyskiela, Lani Keller

Students brainstorm different sources of pollution.  Then, students make their own miniature ocean inside a water bottle, and pollute it with waste and oil to observe the effects on animals in the water.  A demonstration shows students the effect of oil on birds' feathers and discuss the consequences of oil spills for water birds.

Learning goals/objectives for students: 

Students will be able to see first hand how animals in the ocean are affected by the pollution we create.  They will see how pollutants spread into the whole ocean, and how birds are coated by oil that doesn't wash off in an oil spill.  This will result in a better understanding of why pollution is bad and why they should take steps to reduce it.

Getting ready: 
  • Collect one empty plastic water/soda bottle for each student (or have them work in pairs).
  • Add a few drops of blue food coloring to tap water to make the "ocean water" and fill bottles half way with dyed water.
  • Make a pollution mix and keep it in a separate bottle.  We mixed red food coloring, sprinkles, mayonnaise, green food coloring, soy sauce etc.  The grosser, the better, but don't make it so dark that you won't be able to see into the water bottle afterwards.

Lesson Implementation / Outline


Students brainstorm different sources of pollution.  Point out how much of this pollution ends up in our oceans--You can specifically point out the drains on the street that drain directly to the ocean!


Pass out the water bottles filled with blue water and tell the students that this is their model ocean.

Pass out the sinking and floating beads (at least one of each) to the students and have them decide what animal each will represent--the class can brainstorm about bottom dwellers (starfish, crabs, lobsters, etc.) and animals on the surface (birds, whales, seals, otters, etc.)--and write down the animals they decided on.

Using a funnel, pour into each student's bottle some of the pollution mixture.  Have them write down where the pollution went and which animals it affected--it spreads everywhere and affects all the animals!

Now talk a little bit about how we need oil in order to drive our cars and power our machines, and we have to ship this oil across the ocean, and if this oil spills, it is a really really bad kind of pollution.  Using a funnel, pour into each student's bottle some oil.  Have them NOT SHAKE THE BOTTLE yet.  Ask them to notice where the oil is--it is on the TOP, affecting the animals on the surface.  You can use this to talk about how oil and water do not mix, and oil is less dense that water so it goes to the top, if you have time or the students have learned about density.

Finally, tell them a storm is coming and let them finally shake their bottle up and down.  Have them all stop shaking their bottle at the same time and put them down on the desk together.  Have everyone watch and observe where the oil went--it went EVERYWHERE, even down at the bottom of the ocean. So the surface animals aren't the only ones affected in an oil spill.

To further demonstrate the negative effects of oil as a pollutant, you can do the following demonstration: Have everyone get on the floor in a big horseshoe.  Sit in the middle of the circle and make sure everyone can see.  Hold a feather up in the air and talk about a bird that is flying in the sky over the ocean, looking for something to eat.  Then when it sees something to eat, swoop the feather down and dip it in a clear cup of water to show the bird diving down into the ocean.  Pull the feather back out of the water.  It will be wet, but the water will bead up and drip off, and if you give the feather a quick shake, it will be almost as good as new. Pass it around for the students to see.
Now take a cup of oil and talk about the same bird looking for something to eat.  Use a different but identical feather so that you can compare it to the previous feather afterwards.  Dip the feather into the oil this time.  When you pull it out, the feather will be completely sopping and stick thin.  Try shaking it off or drying it on a paper towel--it doesn't help.  Have the students compare the two feathers and ask whether they think the birds would be able to fly.  (If you  have extra time, you can have the students DRAW the two feathers when they get back to their desks.)  Then, see if you can ask the students what the bird could do to get the oil off, and get the students to suggest washing the oil off by dipping it back in water.  Of course doing this doesn't help, the feather stays smooched and unable to allow the bird to fly or keep the bird warm.  Have the students talk raise their hands to talk about what this means for birds.  Ask the students what they can do to help reduce oil pollution.

Checking for student understanding: 

After each step in the mini ocean activity, go around to different groups and talk to the students about what they see.  Then as a group, ask the students where the pollution was and which animals were affected and call on a few students to share.  Then have the students write down the answers as they go along.

During the feather demo, have the students compare the two feathers and, if time, draw them.  Ask them whether they think the oily feather will allow the bird to fly, or keep warm.  Ask them what the bird could do to get the oil off (try to wash it in the water) and then show them that this doesn't help!

Wrap-up / Closure: 

At the end of the activities and demonstrations, ask the students to talk about why pollution is bad.  They should be able to say that it hurts animals in the ocean, and especially how the birds' feathers are hurt by oil pollution.

Then ask the students what they think they could do to reduce pollution. A big one to point out, besides recycling, driving less, and being careful not to pour things down drains that go to the ocean, is that just TALKING about what they learned that day and sharing what they saw in the demo with their parents and extended family members can make a BIG difference.

Extensions and Reflections

Extensions and connections: 

Lessons that lead up to this one would include general information about ocean ecosystems and all the mammals, birds, fish, plants, and crustaceans that live in the ocean.

If you have excess to a research lab working with zebrafish (for example UCSF labs like Didier Stanier or Herwig Baier) a lesson about how pollutants can cause mutations can follow this ocean pollution lessons. Bring in wildtye and mutant forms of zebrafish. Have them observe the fish individually and then in small groups.  Have them carefully draw the zebrafish and explain that observation is an important scientific skill.  Explain that the differences in physical appearance is due to a mutation, a change in the DNA or the genes of the organism. That change is basically a change in the building instructions of the organism.  Then ask what they think CAUSES mutations. Tell students that some pollutants can cause all kind of mutations, some visible, some not visible.  Not all mutations are bad--we evolve because the best mutations prosper--but many of them are detrimental.


Be very careful that no one knocks over their water bottle without a cap.  We did all of the pouring of oil and "pollution" while they had their hands in their laps, and then once we had the cap on they could take the bottle.

The students really loved mixing up the bottle when the storm came and then watching the oil settle.  The students also hated when we came around and added pollution to their pretty clear bottles!

The students were especially affected by the feather in oil demo--and we were too!  It is really sad to see.  Our teachers told us that at the end of the week almost every student said it was the thing they were most interested in.

If you could find little plastic marine animals or confetti shaped like fish, it would be more visual than beads and styrofoam, but our students had no problem pretending that the beads were all different kinds of ocean life!

NGSS Topics
NGSS Disciplinary Core Ideas
NGSS Performance Expectations
NGSS Performance Expectations: 
NGSS Science and Engineering Practices
NGSS Crosscutting Concepts
NGSS Crosscutting Concepts: 

Standards - Grade 1

Investigation and Experimentation: 
4. Scientific progress is made by asking meaningful questions and conducting careful investigations. As a basis for understanding this concept and addressing the content in the other three strands, students should develop their own questions and perform investigations. Students will:
a. Draw pictures that portray some features of the thing being described.
b. Record observations and data with pictures, numbers, or written statements.
e. Make new observations when discrepancies exist between two descriptions of the same object or phenomenon.

Standards - Grade 2

Life Sciences: 
2. Plants and animals have predictable life cycles. As a basis for understanding this concept:
c. Students know many characteristics of an organism are inherited from the parents. Some characteristics are caused or influenced by the environment.
d. Students know there is variation among individuals of one kind within a population.

Standards - Grade 3

Life Sciences: 
3. Adaptations in physical structure or behavior may improve an organism's chance for survival. As a basis for understanding this concept:
c. Students know living things cause changes in the environment in which they live: some of these changes are detrimental to the organism or other organisms, and some are beneficial.