Lesson Plan: Ready, Set, Drift!

This lesson uses web-based resources that are found within the theme with which this lesson is associated. The purpose of the lesson is to help you integrate these web-based resources into your curriculum. If you need more science content information, refer to the text associated with the overall SciGuide topic and with each theme within a SciGuide.

Transcript of Audio:

Grade Level: 9–12

Subject Area: Earth Science

SciGuide Resources:
NOAA’s “Tides and Water Levels” Discovery Kit

NOAA’s Center for Operational Oceanographic Products and Services (CO-OPS) Web page, with links to data and information about tides, water levels, currents, predictions, weather observations, forecasts, and harmonic constituents.

Online tutorial with additional details about ocean currents

Standards Addressed:
National Science Education Standards

  1. Content Standard A: Science as Inquiry
    • Abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry
    • Understandings about scientific inquiry
  2. Content Standard B: Physical Science
    • Motions and forces
  3. Content Standard D: Earth and Space Science
    • Energy in the Earth system
  4. Content Standard E: Science and Technology
    • Abilities of technological design
    • Understandings about science and technology
  5. Content Standard F: Science in Personal and Social Perspectives
    • Natural resources
    • Environmental quality
    • Natural and human-induced hazards
    • Science and technology in local, national, and global challenges

Time Required:

One 45-minute class period, plus time for student research

Lesson Goal:
Explore how navigators of ships and boats predict and compensate for the effects of coastal ocean currents.

Learning Objectives:

  • Students will define and explain the terms set, drift, course over the ground, and speed over the ground.
  • Students will use online databases to recover specific data on water movement for selected geographic areas.
  • Students will use information about currents, winds, and tides to solve practical problems relevant to coastal navigation.
  • Students will demonstrate the use of a maneuvering board in solving problems involving ocean currents and navigation.

Prerequisite Knowledge:

Ocean currents are caused by three driving forces. The first is tidal motion resulting from the gravitational attraction of the moon and the Sun. The second is wind motion acting on the ocean through friction with the ocean’s surface. Finally, when the density of one water mass is different from the density of another water mass, the more dense water mass tends to move beneath the less dense water mass (when this happens, the water masses are said to move toward “equilibrium positions”). Such density differences are the result of variations in temperature and salinity (the concentration of dissolved substances such as sodium chloride, salts of magnesium and calcium, etc.) among different water masses. Water movement caused by these differences is known as “thermohaline circulation.”

Regardless of their cause, ocean currents are critical to life on Earth, as they transport food materials, as well as certain life stages of some organisms (e.g., seeds, eggs, larvae, juveniles, adults) over thousands of miles. In addition, ocean currents have a major impact on global climate, transferring heat from equatorial regions to higher latitudes (e.g., the Gulf Stream in the Atlantic Ocean and the Kuroshio Current in the Pacific). At a much smaller scale, currents can be a serious issue for swimmers since strong “rip” currents can quickly move a swimmer away from the shore. Similarly, anyone who operates a boat in coastal waters needs to understand the movement of currents and how to handle their effects. Shipmasters, in particular, need accurate real-time information about coastal water movements to avoid dangerous and expensive groundings and collisions.

Providing this information is part of the mission of NOAA’s Center for Operational Oceanographic Products and Services (CO-OPS).

This Center:
  • provides information on water levels, coastal currents, and tides;
  • establishes standards for collecting and processing these data;
  • conducts research into new or improved oceanographic observing systems;
  • designs software to improve data processing capabilities;
  • performs regular data analysis and quality control of data; and
  • disseminates this information to the public.

CO-OPS also manages a national network of Physical Oceanographic Real-Time Systems (PORTS®) located in major U.S. harbors. The PORTS® network provides real-time information such as water levels, currents, air gap (the clearance between the water surface and the bottom of a bridge), weather data, and other oceanographic information to help mariners avoid groundings and collisions (visit http://tidesandcurrents.noaa.gov for more information on CO-OPS information and data products; and http://tidesandcurrents.noaa.gov/programs for more information on PORTS® and other CO-OPS programs) In this lesson, students will explore some of the information available through the CO-OPS program website, and will apply this information to hypothetical coastal navigation problems.

Procedures/Instructional Strategy:
Materials Needed

  • Copies of “Navigating with Currents Worksheet,” one copy for each student or student group
  • Copies of Figure 2 (maneuvering board) at least four copies for each student or student group/li>
  • Parallel rules or drafting triangles, one for each student or student group

Students will complete Salinity and Tides worksheets and discussion questions.


  1. Visit the “Tides and Water Levels” Discovery Kit (http://oceanservice.noaa.gov/education/kits/tides) for additional resources and lesson plans.
  2. Visit http://www.usm.maine.edu/maps/k-12-lesson-plans for additional lesson plans and activities about currents from the University of Southern Maine’s Osher Map Library.
  3. Visit Multimedia Learning Objects at http://www.learningdemo. com/noaa. Click on the links to Lessons 8 and 9 for interactive multimedia presentations and Learning Activities on Ocean Currents and Ocean Waves, including an activity involving landing safely on an aircraft carrier by allowing for the Coriolis Effect.

Classroom Resources:
Computers with Internet access

Lesson Plan File:
(entire word document containing complete lesson plan and supporting attachments)
Download Here (pdf, 355kb)

Student Work Description:
Student problem sheet for the "Ready, Set, Drift" lesson.

Sample of Student Work:
Download Here

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