The Ocean System: Course Preview

What is a system?

This discussion was selected from Week 1 of the AMNH online course The Ocean System, part of Seminars on Science, a program of online graduate-level professional development courses for K-12 educators. This is an excerpt from an actual course discussion, but learner names have been changed. Explore more sample resources...

In the essays this week we describe the Oceans as a system. What is a system? What are the components that make up a system? Describe a system from everyday life.

Tracey 26 Sep 6:32 PM

Systems. My third graders and I looked up the word in our science book to review its meaning. It said a system is a collection of cycles, structures, and processes that interact.

We decided that systems have parts, connections or jobs that have to be done or they effect what comes next.
The examples we came up with - life cycle, water cycle, respiratory system, cpu on a computer, our school, fedex tracking system, the line in the cafeteria :), weather, food chains, growing crops in our garden, turning a cotton plant into a t-shirt.
Tracey and the gang.

Scientist Colin 29 Sep 11:59 AM

Hi there to all the gang,
Those are excellent examples - all of them. Isn't it amazing? One way of detecting "systems" is to see if, breaking them into their parts, we can understand the properties of the system itself. Let's say: can we understand all what's going on in an ecosystem just by making an inventory of what lives there? What other kind of information we need to really understand the properties of an ecosystem from the point of view of a living system?

Tracey 29 Sep 1:35 PM

We're a little behind because of Rita, but will get up to speed this week. Several things that came to mind as we discussed this question.

Every community has producers, consumers, and recyclers that share a common living space.The availability of resources such as food, shelter and space within an ecosystem would effect the quantity and variety of organisms within. Each organism has its own little niche within the system but competition for these resources and slow or rapid changes to the environment over time also come into play.


Hello to all. I found this essay especially interesting because I asked a group of fourth graders the same thing last week. What is an ecosystem? An ecosystem is a place. It is a large place on our Earth like an ocean or a desert. An ecosystem is when many parts make up a whole. None of the parts can stand alone. There are nonliving and living things in an ecosystem. In order for the ecosystem to survive there must be a flow of energy. Interactions, both positive and negative occur between the living and nonliving pieces.

I would like to add some thoughts on the readings we have shared in this course to the above information. The more I learn about our ocean the more complex it seems. There are so many ways that the living and nonliving parts weave into and around each other. To understand this system requires not only the knowledge of the ways of water, air, sun or the history of its origin, its living creatures, but the wisdom to tie these things together in meaning and context. Why is it I feel that we know so much about the surface of Mars or the possibilities of Europa yet do not know our own ocean?

Scientist: Rondi Davies 5 Oct 3:56 PM

Raja - too true - we know so little about the ocean. For example, we don't know what species may be threatened or have become extinct (from human impact) because we never knew about them in the first place.

An ecosystem is an excellent example of a system. I was interested to learn more about what you meant by positive and negative interactions occurring between living and nonliving pieces? Also, are all ecosystems large?
Cheers, Rondi

Raja 29 Sep 9:50 PM

Biomes, habitats, and ecosystems. From my experience many nonfiction texts use them interchangeably. I think an ecosystem could be microscopic (not large), yet still be large and complex to the organisms that live there. I guess I need clarification on my vocabulary. My thoughts were a habitat is a place in nature where plants and animals live in balance,(a pond), but an ecosystem is a grander scale, maybe many habitats put together.

As far as interactions that are positive and negative, I meant that some relationships are symbiotic; parasitic, commensualism, or mutualism are some examples. Relationships between nonliving and living things could mean climate shifts, storms, volcanic eruptions, things like that.

Luis 30 Sep 6:08 AM

When I teach ecosystems I start with a large one -- usually I use large scale watersheds, and have the students describe the ecosystem at that level, then reduce the scale to, say, a river, then to a stream, then to a pond, and eventually we arrive down at the microscopic level and I do a pond water lab. I love giving the students water samples from a bucket I pulled from a local pond and having them look at the "clear" water under the scopes, or taking a single leaf from a tiny water plant and magnify it, to find it full of life. Then we talk about this scale of ecosystem.

Instructor: Gordon 30 Sep 6:13 AM

HI Raja -- These words have very specific meanings to ecologists, so see if you can take a bit of time to check out some definitions and post back to us. There is also one more term that is well used in the course and that is niche. Can you add this to your list and see if you can clarify its meaning as well? In week two we focus on some unusual habitats and ecosystems -- those associated with the deep sea vents. Happy reading in week 2!

Raja< 1 Oct 6:29 PM

Gordon, I have done some research and have a better understanding of these terms.

Biome- a major biotic community characterized by the dominant forms of plant life and the prevailing entire community of living organisms in a single ecological area. So - A whole community including living and nonliving things, large in scale.

Ecosystem- a SYSTEM formed by the interaction of a community of organisms with their physical environment. A complex set of relationships interlocked through cycles of energy and chemical elements. So- a working system, a series of relationships, size does not matter

Habitat- the type of ENVIRONMENT in which an organism or group normally occurs. A place where populations live characterized by physical features. So - a place in nature.

Niche- Odum- Fundamentals of Ecology -WB Saunders 1959. The ecological niche of an organism depends not only on where it lives but also on what it does. By analogy, it may be said that the habitat is the organism's address, and the niche is its "profession", biologically speaking. So- where it lives and what it does. How does it support other living and non-living things? Its interactions.

Martin 30 Sep 10:12 AM

System? The definition of a system can be illustrated when thinking about a concept map. A concept map takes something broad and narrows it down to individual components. Similarly a system has a particular function, while needing many individual functions to run the system as a whole. The many cycles that are present on Earth make up the spheres which then make up the whole system of Earth. There are so many examples of systems in our everyday life from extremely complex to fairly simple. Just the other day I was discussing with my 7th grade the process behind them being able to drink the water from their faucet. There are many additional components that need to work to ensure that they will have safe drinking water.

Scientist: Colin 6 Oct 10:40 AM

Right - The thing about natural systems is that their reality is so subtle that we live taken their services for granted: drinking water, air, an atmosphere that shelters us from UV radiation, .... This the challenge of society now: to become aware of those natural services that depend on how Earth systems work. I have here something for your 7th graders. A great analogy to one of the properties of systems: interconnectedness.

Lucy 6 Oct 11:13 AM

I think we sometimes place economics before environment. (I guess that makes sense alphabetically??) We have used the environment for a sink for our wastes without much thought. Only recently have people begun to think of internalizing externalities such as pollution because we seem to be running up to limits, i.e., degradation of the environment. If we look at the Earth as a system, like a spaceship, we will start to see that we need to be concerned with sustaining our system in order to survive. I think the "frontier attitude" that there was always somewhere else to go if we spoiled on area is coming to an end. I know in earth science there is a new curriculum called earth systems science that attempts to integrate the sciences so we can better see the connections that exist in our system, Earth.


(response to Lucy) 6 Oct 10:40 AM

Lucy, That sounds like a great curriculum. The more authentic we can make science for kids, the more engaged they will be. Science is really a pretty integrated discipline in the real world. How can we expect kids to be jazzed about science when we break it into such boring pieces for them?

Instructor: Gordon 6 Oct 10:40 AM

Very nice point Lucy -- We make a pretty arbitrary distinction sometimes between what is biology and what is chemistry and what is physics, etc. In fact, aren't many of these categories created fairly arbitrarily. We can separate the sciences and the study of different aspects of nature for convenience, but we must not loose sight of the fact that they are integrated in nature.

Raja 6 Oct 10:40 AM

Lucy, I agree. NY State just wrote their new scope and sequence for elementary school science education. We are now being asked to teach ocean content from many different perspectives. In each of these perspectives we look at how things are related or connected. Sometimes the big picture gives us a clearer view. Raja

Thomas 6 Oct 10:40 AM

Drawing lines. One thing that I really enjoy about teaching is finding opportunities to integrate one area of science into another. There are no real defining lines between physics, chemistry, biology, and earth science, etc...there are so many connections between them. Is, therefore, science itself a system??? Hmmm...

Anyway, we owe it to our students to present a specific area of science as an overlapping piece of the big picture. For example, we cannot truly present oceanography without comparing the oceans to landmasses. It's all oceans...the universe...what a big time system!

Stephanie 6 Oct 10:40 AM

Well put Thomas!

I love your comment, "science itself a system???" As a teacher I can't agree with you more, we need to be all inclusive of the sciences when we teach the individual concepts so our students will get the "big picture".

Eileen 6 Oct 10:40 AM

I always tell my students that science is a system. There are biology concepts I know they'll see again in chem and there are chem concepts I introduce early. I have studied the curriculum enough to know what they've learned in the past and remind them about it when we come to different units. The students seem to think of each subject area as an island that you only go to once. I tell them it's more like a science cruise where you keep getting on and off at the same islands at different times when you're looking for different types of information. They laugh when I tell them we're "cruising into chemistry" or "embarking on a lesson in earth science," but it makes things fun. I even have a magnet of a cruise ship that I put up to remind my students that biology is not an island. Last year I even had a "guest captain" for a day come speak to my class about how their macromolecule structures will be used in the next course.

Instructor: Gordon 6 Oct 10:40 AM

Hi Eileen -- I love your cruise ship idea -- I know the "no man is an island" phrase, but I like your "no science is an island" even better. Cool.

Gina 6 Oct 10:40 AM

You can expand that to include all disciplines taught at school. I remind my students of connections from art to science when we study color theory. And as a drawing exercise, they drew hearts and flowers - actually drawing from flowers and naming the parts and drawing a model of a human heart. As my school becomes an International Baccalaureate magnet, we are constantly seeking connections and trying to make education meaningful for students by connecting learning to the reality.