Dive In: Biology At The Beach

Continue the spirit of summer by studying marine life in your classrooms.

By Lynsey Peterson


Starfish on the beach

Whether you are a teacher or a parent, still on summer vacation or participating in year-round schooling, learning does not have to end when the school bell rings. Learning is a lifelong process that can be a part of our daily lives. Even a trip to the beach can help you, your children, and your students learn more about the world. Many biological principles and themes can be understood through observations and hands-on experiences found on and around the beach. As a parent, you can have these experiences with your children. As a teacher, you can bring these experiences back to your classroom in the fall. Even better, you could have the opportunity to take your classes to the beach on a field trip. Whatever your options, even if you are limited to a nearby lake or river, take some time this summer to observe and learn more about biology.


Invertebrate Animal Phyla

When you think about animals, large vertebrates probably first come to mind. However, most animals are actually invertebrates. Arthropods are common invertebrates, but there are many more phyla that can be best explored at the beach. The simplest animals are the sponges, which belong to the phyla Porifera. You may be able to find a few of these washed up on the beach or at a beach store. They are also sold in art or bath stores. You can use these at the beginning of the year to stump students when you talk about the characteristics of living things and animals in particular. Students invariably think that the sponges are nonliving or at best a type of plant. Along with non-symmetrical sponges, find some sea stars or sea urchins to help illustrate radial symmetry in animals.

Plant and Animal Adaptations

Invertebrates, vertebrates, and all organisms at the beach are adaptable organisms. Estuaries near the beach where freshwater rivers meet the salty ocean require specific adaptations for survival. With the added threat of hurricanes and flooding, beach creatures show amazing adaptations. Take pictures of trees shaped by winds and dune plants holding tight to shifting sands. Spend some time observing how crabs and fish move in and out with the tides. Later, have students research the particular adaptations of estuary organisms to find out how certain traits help organisms survive in a turbulent environment.


Another invertebrate beach find is the ubiquitous seashell. Collect a wide range of shells and use them to teach about the characteristics of mollusks. If you can, try to find some univalves and bivalves – univalves have one-piece, snail-like shells, and bivalves have two-piece, scallop-like shells. Of course, you should only pick up empty shells, but try to find bivalves that have both shells intact or pairs of bivalve shells that match up. In addition to teaching your students about the characteristics of mollusks, you can use these shells to work on dichotomous keys and classification. Have your students use a dichotomous key to identify the shells. You could also have them create their own dichotomous keys to classify the shells themselves.

There are many other ways to explore the fascinating organisms at the beach. You could also study the life cycles, ecology, and environmental requirements of various marine species. Pick a species and observe it yourself or with some of your favorite learning partners. There is no better way to be in the moment and acquire authentic understandings of our world. What did you learn this summer?


Marine Invertebrate Research and Illustrated Report

Have your class create a classroom exhibit about marine invertebrates. After watching a film about ocean animals, pairs of students research different marine invertebrate species. The pairs create an illustrated report to share with the class. Internet resources and a grading rubric are included in this cooperative learning lesson.

Classification of Commercial Marine Species

Students use pictures of organisms to help them classify marine species. Using provided pictures and descriptions, learning groups work to develop a classification system on a worksheet template. They compare their classification to that used by scientists and discuss the importance of taxonomy.

Adaptations of Mangroves

After learning about the amazing adaptations that allow mangroves to survive the challenges of estuary life, students work to create their own organism. They use the provided worksheet to guide their efforts to develop organisms with adaptations suited to particular environments. The lesson also suggests an extension that focusses on the environmental importance and degradation of mangrove forest ecosystems.

Marine Taxonomy

Learners create their own classification systems to differentiate between the phyla of marine invertebrates. Using pictures and drawings of marine organisms from different phyla, students work in groups to determine a way to classify the organisms. They share their decisions with the class and compare them with a taxonomic key (provided).

Biology Guide

Lynsey peterson picture thumb

Lynsey Peterson