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Coral Reef Biology and Conservation: Empowering Students to Safeguard Florida's Keys Coral Reefs

Subject Area: Life Science

Grade Level: 9-12

Focus Question:

  • What physiological, ecological, and behavioral strategies contribute to the success of reef-building corals?

Learning Objectives:

Students will be able to describe and explain the importance of asexual and sexual reproductive strategies in reef-building corals.

Students will be able to explain the significance of reef-building corals having a nutritional strategy involving both photosynthesis and carnivory.

Students will be able to describe two competitive behaviors used by reef-building corals to secure living space.

Students will be able to explain how coral reefs can support abundant life even in nutrient-poor waters.

Materials Needed:

Teaching Time:

  • This lesson plan is designed to be taught over two or three 45-minute class periods. Additionally, students will require extra time for individual or group research. If you decide to set up a model coral reef ecosystem, additional time will be needed.

Seating Arrangement:

  • Students are divided into groups of 3-4 for collaborative work.

Maximum Number of Students:

  • The lesson is suitable for up to 30 students, given the group size and interactive activities involved.

Key Words:

  • Coral reefs, Aquarium, Symbiosis, Zooxanthellae, Broadcast spawning

Background Information:

This section sets the stage by providing essential context for the lesson. It explains the importance of coral reefs, their ecological significance, and the various natural and human-induced threats they face. It underscores the need for coral reef conservation and the role students can play in safeguarding these unique ecosystems.

Learning Procedure:

This is the heart of the lesson and includes step-by-step instructions for both the teacher and the students. It's broken down into several parts:

  1. Introduction to Coral Reef Tutorials: Students are directed to online coral reef tutorials to explore foundational knowledge. Different tutorial sections can be assigned to each student group.

  2. Self-Test and Discussion: Each student or student group completes a self-test and participates in a group discussion to review the answers. During this discussion, ensure that students grasp the importance of various aspects of reef-building corals, such as reproductive strategies, nutritional strategies, and competitive behaviors.

  3. Designing a Miniature Coral Reef Ecosystem: Students are introduced to the main project. They are tasked with researching key aspects of coral reef biology, including nutritional strategies, competition, reproduction, and the unique characteristics of coral reef ecosystems. This research will form the basis for designing a miniature coral reef system.

  4. Group Presentations: Each student group presents its designed miniature coral reef ecosystem, with a focus on explaining how their system functions and how it compares to natural coral reef systems. The teacher facilitates a discussion to identify the best features for an "optimum" model coral reef.

Learning Procedure:

Introduction to Coral Reef Tutorials:

  • Direct students to the coral reef tutorials available at NOAA's website. For a more engaging experience, consider assigning different tutorial sections to each student group.

  • Distribute a version of the "Coral Reef Self-Test" to each student or student group.

  • Lead a discussion to review the answers and ensure students comprehend the following key points:

    • Most reef-building corals are sessile, meaning they are stationary and adapted to their environment through specific physiological and behavioral characteristics.

    • Notable factors include reproductive strategies (both sexual and asexual, including mass spawning events), a combination of photosynthetic and carnivorous nutrition, and behavioral interactions with other species that enable corals to compete for living space.

Designing a Miniature Coral Reef Ecosystem:

  • Explain to students that their task is to design a functioning model of a coral reef ecosystem that can be assembled in your classroom.

  • Assign students to research the following relevant aspects:

    • Nutritional strategies used by corals.

    • How corals compete with other species for space.

    • How corals reproduce.

    • How coral reefs can support large numbers of plants and animals even when the surrounding waters are nutrient-poor (often referred to as "biological deserts").

    • Key physical factors required by corals, such as temperature and water movement.

  • Encourage a brainstorming session to facilitate idea generation.

Discussion on Model Coral Reef Ecosystem Design:

  • Lead a discussion where students present their research findings in the context of designing a model coral reef ecosystem.

  • Emphasize the importance of photosynthesis as the primary source of energy in coral reef systems, with a focus on the role of zooxanthellae (algae living within coral tissues).

  • Prompt students to identify potential sources of energy for their miniature coral reef ecosystem, such as corals with associated zooxanthellae and various types of algae.

  • Discuss the importance of food chains or webs in the model system and the limitations regarding the number of trophic levels due to energy transfer efficiency.

  • Highlight the need for understanding and managing leftover artificial food to avoid pollution.

  • Explain the significance of coral feeding, where coral polyps extend their tentacles to capture prey using nematocysts and also utilize mucous strands to capture floating particles.

  • Stress the mutualistic symbiosis between corals and zooxanthellae as a mechanism for cycling key nutrients in nutrient-poor waters.

  • Address the importance of microorganisms in the coral ecosystem.

Preparing Written Reports and Optimum Model Selection:

  • Assign each student group to prepare a written report outlining how they would set up a miniature coral reef ecosystem.

  • The report should describe key system functions and how these functions will be provided.

  • In the discussion, students should compare and contrast the processes for providing these functions in their model system with those in natural coral reef systems.

  • Suggest that a typical model system might include a thermostat-controlled heater, a full-spectrum light with a time switch, and a circulating water pump capable of providing adequate flow rates.

  • Discuss the potential need for supplemental aeration and its role in the water pump configuration.

  • Conclude by having each group present their designs, followed by a discussion to identify the best features for an "optimum" model coral reef ecosystem.

Important Note on Model Coral Systems:

  • If you intend to set up a physical model coral system in your classroom, you can explore commercially available turnkey kits (e.g., from Carolina Biological Supply Company).

  • Emphasize the importance of verifying the sources of any corals and other reef species brought into the classroom to ensure ethical and legal procurement.

The Bridge Connection:

This section provides a link to external resources that students can explore further to deepen their understanding of coral reefs and conservation.

The Me Connection:

Students are encouraged to reflect on their personal role in protecting and restoring coral reefs. They are asked to write a brief essay describing what individuals can do to contribute to coral reef conservation and why this action is essential.


Additional activities and opportunities for students to explore coral reef conservation further are suggested, such as reviewing "Things You Can Do to Protect Coral Reefs."


A list of online resources is provided, including links to NOAA's Coral Reef Conservation Program and information about marine science trips to the Florida Keys for hands-on experience.

This expanded lesson plan provides a comprehensive framework for teaching students about coral reef biology and conservation, incorporating hands-on activities, research, and reflection on personal responsibility in protecting these vital ecosystems.

If you're eager to participate in an enlightening marine science trip to the Florida Keys, look no further than Appleseed Expeditions. Our experienced guides are passionate about educating you on the importance of coral reef conservation during your journey.

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