Tools of the Trade2021-12-18T20:32:48-05:00

Introduction: How do we study the oceans? Traditional oceanography techniques included observation and lowering nets, scoops, and buckets to sample the water and bottom sediments. Modern oceanography employs sophisticated versions of these tools but also increasingly uses electronic probes, sound waves, and real time samplers with live links to computers as well as remotely operated vehicles and satellites.

What to Expect: Many students have some knowledge of submersibles such as ALVIN and Jason which were used to explore wrecks, but students may be less familiar with equipment used to sample the physical, chemical, biological, and geological aspects of the oceans. In this activity, students should use print and online sources of information. The hardest part may be to find an example of a project where the instrument was used.

Materials: Students will choose a tool from the following list and purchase the materials needed to construct their project (alternatively, provide a variety of materials for students to use):

  • Dip nets
  • Dredge
  • Plankton net
  • Sediment sieves
  • Niskin bottle
  • Gravity core
  • Neuston net
  • Shipek grab
  • Secchi disk


1. Ask students, how do we study oceans? Record students’ ideas.

2. Review a brief history of oceanography. What did early oceanographers want to know? What tools did they use?

3. Introduce modern oceanographic tools in the context of their disciplines.

Gravity Core CTD Niskin Bottles Meter Net
Piston Core Drift Buoy Neuston Net
Box Core Satellite Image Phytoplankton Net
Rock Dredge Satellite Telemetry Otter Trawl
Shipek Grab Current Meter Dip Net
Sieves Satellite Images

Have students choose an instrument. They must find out how it is used, then make a working model. Have students demonstrate their instrument for the class or for younger students. The instruments could be displayed with labels. Students should write an outline for their presentation. Each presentation and outline should include the name of the instrument, the date invented (year), its primary use (what does it measure), an example of a research project that used it, difficulty or ease of use, comments or stories, and their sources.

Evaluation: Student presentation, written outline, demonstration of model

Extensions: Some students may wish to choose an autonomous underwater vehicle (AOV), manned submersible, or remotely operated vehicle (ROV). These have many sampling devices, and would be most suitable for students working in pairs.

Based on an idea by Sandy Braniff, SEA Experience 1998. Copyright 1998-2008 by Sea Education Association, all rights reserved. Compiled and edited by Pat Harcourt & Bill Meyer.

This project was supported, in part, by the National Science Foundation (Proposals # TEI-8652383, TPE-8955214, and ESI-925324), the Henry L. and Grace Doherty Foundation, the Donner Foundation and the Pew Charitable Trusts. Opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily of the Foundations.

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