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Love Our Coral Reefs

Originally appears in the Fall 2015 issue

Ecosystems can vary greatly in size, may have definite boundaries (the edge of a pond), or less obvious ones (a grassland as it goes up a mountain) and are found in all terrestrial, aquatic and marine biomes. Ecosystems not only provide homes for organisms, they also maintain energy flows through food chains and cycle nutrients. Additionally, as humans, we interact with, and affect the environment of all organisms that share our space. Unfortunately, our world’s very diverse ecosystems are increasingly threatened throughout many areas of the world. If these human threats continue unchecked over the long term, our environment, economy and quality of life will continue to be adversely impacted from local to global levels.

Coral reefs are one of the most diverse and valuable ecosystems on Earth, but also one of the most endangered. Today, they comprise about one per cent of the ocean floor, but provide a home for up to 25 per cent of marine life, including cnidarian.[i] Approximately one million species of plants and animals in the ocean depend on coral reefs for survival.

A lesson on coral reefs can be used to introduce the effects of climate change and pollution on our environment. It is also a good topic to promote discussion on the role human interactions play in the environment.

The following lesson is designed to give elementary and middle school students the opportunity to explore biodiversity, ecosystems and their interrelatedness through a lesson on coral reefs. This lesson can be taught to both elementary and middle school aged students as well as pre-service teachers. The primary goal of this lesson is to allow students to engage in a lesson that addresses the characteristics of ecosystems to promote environmental awareness.

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Melody L. Russell is an Associate Professor of Science Education in the Department of Curriculum and Teaching at Auburn University in Alabama.  Stanton Belford is an Assistant Professor of Biology at Martin Methodist College in Pulaski, Tennessee, Laura Crowe is a physical science teacher and doctoral student in the science education program at Auburn University and David Laurencio is also a doctoral student in the science education program at Auburn University.

This lesson is modified from the “Anytime lesson plan: Build a coral polyp lesson” California Academy of Science[xvi] and co-taught by the authors, one of which is a certified science teacher.  Authors for this lesson modified the materials, supplies, and some of the content based on the diverse content backgrounds of the authors and also wanted to make the lesson apply to the elementary classroom.



[i] Spalding, M.D., Ravilious, C., & Green, E.P. (2001). World Atlas of Coral Reefs. Prepared at the UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Center. University of California Press

[ii] Hoegh-Guldberg, O. 1999. Climate change, coral bleaching and the future of the world’s coral reefs. Marine and Freshwater Research 50: 839-866.Environ. Change, 11(Suppl 1): S215-S227.

[iii] Van Oppen, M., Gates, R. 2006. Conservation genetics and the resilience of reef-building corals. Molecular Ecology 15: 3863-3883.

[iv] Federal Task Force Study as cited in

[v] National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as cited in

[vi] Muscatine, L. and J.W. Porter, (1977) Reef corals: Mutualistic symbioses adaptive to nutrient-   poor environments. Bioscience, 27: 454–460.

[vii] Garrison T.  (2005)  Oceanography, an invitation to marine science. Fifth Edition.           Belmont (CA): Thomson. 522p.

[viii] Hoegh-Guldberg, O., (2011). Coral reef ecosystems and anthropogenic climate change. Reg.

[ix] Clownfish and Sea Anemone Chapter from Explore Coral Reefs: The Adventures of Ocean Annie

[x] Webquest

[xi] QuestGarden

[xii] Ruppert, E.E., Fox, R.S., & Barnes, R.D. (2004). Invertebrate zoology. (7 ed., pp. 112-177).

[xiii] Jones, Hoegh-Guldberg, Larku, Schreiber, & Hoegh-Guldberg, O. (1998). Temperature-induced bleaching of corals begins with impairment of the CO [sub 2]. Plant, Cell & Environment, 21(12), 1219-1230.

[xiv] The World’s 10 Largest Coral Reefs

[xv] Teach Ocean Science

[xvi] Anytime lesson plan: Build a coral polyp. (n.d.). Retrieved from