Curriculum Modules

Our Invisible Forest: What’s in a Drop of Seawater?

Unit Plan & Lessons   Flow Chart   Printable Overview   Contributors

Take a breath — where does the oxygen you inhaled come from? In our changing world, will we always have enough oxygen? What is in water that supports life? How do we know what we know about our vast oceans? These are just a few of the driving questions explored in this interactive STEAM high school curriculum module.

Students in marine science, environmental science, physics, chemistry, biology, integrated science, biotechnology and/or STEAM courses can use this curriculum module in order to use real-world, big data to investigate how our “invisible forest” influences ocean and Earth systems. Students build an art project to represent their new understanding and share this with the broader community.

This 4-week set of lessons is based on the oceanographic research of Dr. Anne Thompson of Portland State University in Oregon, which focuses on the abundant ocean phytoplankton Prochlorococcus. These interdisciplinary STEAM lessons were inspired by Dr. Thompson’s lab and fieldwork as well as many beautiful visualizations of Prochlorococcus, the ocean, and Earth. Students learn about the impact and importance of Prochlorococcus as the smallest and most abundant photosynthetic organism on our planet. Through the lessons, students act as both scientists and artists as they explore where breathable oxygen comes from and consider how to communicate the importance of tiny cells to human survival.

This module is written as a phenomenon-based, Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) three-dimensional learning unit. Each of the lessons below also has an integrated, optional Project-Based Learning component that guides students as they complete the PBL process. Students learn to model a system and also design and evaluate questions to investigate phenomena. Students ultimately learn what is in a drop of ocean water and showcase how their drop contributes to our health and the stability and dynamics of global systems.


Except where otherwise noted, the Our Invisible Forest: What’s in a Drop of Seawater? module, copyright Institute for Systems Biology (ISB) through Baliga Systems Education Experiences, is available under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.  All logos, trademarks, and videos are property of their respective owners. This resource may contain links to websites operated by third parties. These links are provided for your convenience only and do not constitute or imply any endorsement or monitoring by ISB or ISB’s funding agencies. Please confirm the license status of any third-party resources and understand their terms of use before reusing them.