ENRICHMENT: Tide Pool Observations

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Students will be able to survey the biodiversity in a single marine tidepool and compare and contrast the tidepool community to the community of organisms they commonly encounter in an urban ecosystem.

Big Idea

Areas with ecosystem diversity offer exciting learning opportunities for students.


This lesson is somewhat similar to "A Walk through the Chaparral" lesson because it involves a field trip arranged in conjunction with the Sierra Club's ICO program.

Unless your school is located directly on the coast, it is imperative that you make arrangements ahead of time because the logistics of arranging a trip to the coast are time consuming in most areas.  Even in Los Angeles, we needed to travel about an hour to get to an acceptable area with tidepools.

In this lesson, students will be hiking to a tidepool area, choosing a tidepool to survey, and then collecting photos or illustrations of the organisms present in their chosen tidepool.  Following the trip to the tidepools, students will use guidebooks to identify the organisms they observed and then write a reflection on their experience, comparing the ecosystem they visited with the urban ecosystem in which they spend most of their time.

This lesson works especially well if you are doing the larger biodiversity project because students will see clear differences between the organisms they are interacting with and identifying in the city compared with the specific organisms adapted to the intertidal habitat.


Connection to Standards:

In this lesson, students will use mathematics in making measurements and scaled representations of natural features, conduct short field research connected to a larger, long-term project, and obtain and use domain-specific vocabulary as they identify organisms in an unfamiliar habitat.

Preparing for the Trip

To prepare for the trip, you first need to identify an area with tidepools.  If tidepools are not available within a practical distance, you might modify this lesson by having students go on a field trip to any natural area that will have a different community of organisms than that which they encounter on a daily basis.  In my case, Abalone Cove is an excellent natural area in Rancho Palos Verdes, CA.  This location is approximately 1 hour from my school site but worlds away ecologically speaking. 

The arrangements to do the travel were made through the wonderful people at the Angeles Chapter of the Sierra Club's ICO program.  This program is a great resource, especially in urban areas and school districts that may lack funding for field trips into natural areas.  I go into more detail about the ICO program in an earlier lesson.

It's extremely important that you arrange all of the logistics such as bus arrangements, permission slips, etc., ahead of time.  ICO has their own waiver as well, so it's important to begin the planning far ahead of the actual date of the field trip.  In the case of my class' trip, I also had to consult a tide calendar to make sure that we would have sufficient time to explore the tidepools at low tide as they would otherwise be completely submerged at high tide.  Again, there's a lot of planning to take into consideration and each site will be unique, so make sure to take care of all of the logistical concerns ahead of time.

Regarding preparing students for this trip, I suggest you already have students working on the biodiversity survey project.  That way, students are already accustomed to photographing and identifying organisms and should already have mastered some of the best practices to do so.

Surveying tidepools

120 minutes

Once we arrive at out destination and before we get off the bus, I distribute copies of the tidepool observation worksheet (you might want to do this on the ride to the site so that students have a chance to familiarize themselves with the assignment they'll be expected to complete).

One of the guides from ICO will give a short orientation, and then we begin the hike to the tidepools.  In our case, we started from an area a few miles from the tidepools to allow students to "decompress" from the city and enjoy hiking through a natural area for a while.

Once we arrived at the tidepools, it's important to let students know the boundaries of the area that they can explore.  In our case, there was a cliff to our group's left, and it provided a convenient point to say students could not go beyond.  We also had the guideline that they could not go into the water any higher than the level of the bottom of their knees.  In this way, you can allow students to roam and explore, without worrying that anyone will do anything too dangerous.

Once students are aware of the boundaries, they then walk and find a tidepool to survey.  To complete the survey, students:

  1. measure the dimensions of the tide pool using a meter stick
  2. sketch the shape of the tide pool to scale on their worksheet
  3. take photos* of the different organisms inhabiting the tide pool
  4. place illustrations or numbers in their scaled tide pool map to indicate the location of the various individuals and populations inhabiting the tide pool 

*the photos can be used by students as observations for their biodiversity survey project on iNaturalist as well as being a resource to complete the identifications of the species they observed using the guidebooks later in the lesson.

Some students were better about counting the numbers of individuals from each particular species, but I ultimately was ok with them just identifying how many different species were present if they weren't meticulous about population counts.

While students work, I walk around from group to group offering any advice that I can, but mostly just sharing in my students' enthusiasm for their discoveries.  It's pretty easy to get caught up in the excitement of students observing certain kinds of organisms for the first time and this really adds to the enjoyment of teacher and students on a trip like this.  

We spent almost an hour at the tidepools before a rising tide made it more difficult to continue observing discrete tidepools.  In the last 10 minutes or so, I go around to each group to let them know that we're almost ready to leave.

Once it's time to go, I make sure we have all students and all materials and then we begin the hike back to the bus.

Reflecting on a trip to the ocean

30 minutes

On the way back to school from the tidepools, I distribute guidebooks to students and ask them to use the books to identify some of the organisms they encountered.  If they do not want to use the guidebooks on the bus, I let students know they can use them in class after school, or during any class time that we would be working on the biodiversity survey project.

In addition to completing the "tidepool inventory", I ask students to complete a reflection on their experience on the hike and at the tidepools.  The goal here is for students to verbalize their emotions and to truly reflect on the experience.  

Special Thanks

Although I mention the Sierra Club's ICO program many times both in this and the "Walk through the Chaparral" lesson, I must acknowledge that the true hero in this story is Ms. Elizabeth Neat.  

Elizabeth welcomed me to the Angeles chapter of the Sierra Club's ICO meeting early in the school year and was instrumental in selecting locations, dates, and handling an enormous share of the logistics of these two trips.  It is no exaggeration to say these trips simply could not have been possible without her significant investments of time and careful consideration.  

Additionally, and perhaps most importantly for my students, she accompanied us on the sometimes rigorous hikes and shared her bright positivity and enthusiasm for the natural world at every turn in the path.

I can not say it enough... THANKS ELIZABETH!