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Educational Activies and Lesson Plans

Harmful algal blooms can be used to illustrate important concepts in biology, ecology, marine science, data analysis, and more. See below for materials that educators can incorporate into curriculum. This page will be updated as new activities and resources become available.

In light of classroom interruptions due to COVID-19, virtual or remote lesson plans are marked with 🦠.

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Track HABs by Mapping their Cysts

🦠 This activity is geared towards middle school students, and guides them through creating their own Alexandrium cyst map and graphs using real data from the Gulf of Maine. Students will learn about the importance of HABs and paralytic shellfish poisoning, as well as how these events are studied in the Northeast. These materials are adaptable for use with visually impaired students.




Slicing the Pie - Interpreting Harmful Algal Blooms one pie chart at at time

🦠 In this activity for middle school classrooms (Grades 6-8), students will learn about several grade-appropriate scientific concepts through the background information and data exercises focused on HABs, including the importance of phytoplankton to ocean health and life on earth, the life cycle characteristics of phytoplankton species that include both sexual and asexual reproduction, and the relationship between ecosystem health and human health. Through the data exercises, students will learn how scientists can use DNA approaches to study HAB species and analyze “real” data collected by scientists over multiple months and years of sampling to assess changes in HAB communities over time.  Materials adaptations are specified for use with visually impaired students.

Cyanobacteria bloom in Lake Erie.  Photo courtesy of Tim Davis.

Nutrient Loading & Eutrophication

🦠 This experiment for students in grades 9-12, designed by Brianna Stanley at VIMS, helps students explore how nutrients drive phytoplankton growth and eutrophication. Educators can either make use of the provided data sheet or add a hands-on element with low-cost and readily available supplies. Students explore the concept of limiting factors, what environmental factors influence algal growth, nutrient ratios, and eutrophication, as well as gain experience with graphing on two y-axes and calculating Redfield ratios.

In an experiment for grades 6-8 designed by Michelle Woods at VIMS, educators can provide a hands-on learning experience for students about eutrophication and harmful algal blooms. Students run their own week-long algal growth experiments, then graph and analyze their data.

J.L. Person outlines a more advanced variation of the above project, with experimental replicates at different nutrient levels.

Expansive blooms of several <i>Caulerpa</i> spp. occurred off the Florida coast in 1997 and 2001

Phytoplankton Buoyancy & Mobility

Researchers from NASA's Ames Research Center helped to design this project for grades 6-12, exploring the role of light cues in cyanobacteria mobility. Cyanobacteria form microbial mat colonies capable of moving horizontally and vertically to reach ideal light conditions, and this experiment allows students to grow cultures, measure their responses, and analyze the data.

SEA's "Sinking Races" lesson plan for grades 2-8 allows students to construct their own phytoplankton and zooplankton out of common classroom materials. The experiment can be used to introduce students to biological concepts such as competition, evolutionary constraints, and morphological variation, as well as physical science concepts like buoyancy and water resistance.

A more advanced version of this experiment for grades 9-12 is available through NOAA's Office of Ocean Exploration and Research.

<i> Dinophysis norvegica </i>, C. Heil

Introduction to Molecular Techniques

🦠 Sam Fortin at VIMS created a lesson plan for students in grades 9-12 focused on introducing students to how researchers use DNA to identify what algal species are present in a given water sample, as well as an understanding that algal community composition changes seasonally. Students use simplified DNA "codes" on printouts to identify species, as well as investigate water conditions that lead to a harmful bloom.

In a lesson developed by Kristen Sharpe at VIMS for grades 9-12, students are introduced to chromatography by extracting pigments from plant-based foods, running paper chromatography tests, performing a species identification of an unknown species, and developing an understanding of how pigments absorb or reflect different wavelengths of light.

MicroscopeName: Jennifer

Ecological Concepts

🦠 In this experiment for grades 9-12 by Sarah Pease at VIMS, students explore the concept of bioaccumulation and biomagnification with regards to harmful algal blooms. Students can simulate the presence of HABs in a water body and how toxins concentrate in shellfish tissue using common and cost-conscious kitchen supplies. Students then analyze their data and make monitoring and management decisions.

The Northeast Algal Society provides this lesson plan for advanced high school and undergraduate level students to learn about food webs and trophic cascades. Students grow an algal culture as well as a herbivore and a predator species of plankton, and create their own week-long experiment to test a hypothesis of either top-down or bottom-up population control. Educators can also include an introduction to statistical analysis once data has been collected.


Engineering for Biology

🦠 Researchers frequently combine hands-on fieldwork with technological innovation to acquire new data sets and perspectives on biological problems. NOAA's Office of Ocean Exploration and Research provides a lesson plan for students in grades 7-8 to introduce different types of underwater sampling vehicles and explore what types of experiments they carry out.

🦠 In another lesson plan from NOAA's OOER, students do research on current deep sea autonomous vehicles, then design and build a prototype submersible with available materials. The lesson plan can be adapted to be built and tested remotely from campus, or the experiment can be transitioned to a design challenge.


Chemistry Made Easy

🦠 This lesson plan makes learning chemistry easy by incorporating marine chemistry and coral reef biodiversity  through hands-on activities and discussion.  Students learn about photosynthesis, marine food webs, harmful algae chemicals and distribution, and the negative effects of algal toxins on humans and marine organisms. They construct their own molecules and build a food web to understand why chemistry matters in coral reef ecosystems. Students then can brainstorm how we might track and prevent these negative impacts. These activities have been shared with high schoolers and can also be adapted for the visually impaired.


MODIS (aqua) satellite image of Lake Erie harmful algal bloom, August 21, 2015. Credit: NOAA Great Lakes CoastWatch

Research Guides

🦠 Courtesy of NOAA's National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science, this guided research project for students in grades 9-12 introduces the human health hazards and toxic syndromes associated with harmful algal blooms. Students research the organisms, impacts, and mitigation strategies for a variety of HABs independently and present their findings to the group.

🦠 This guided research project from National Geographic, aimed at students in grades 9-12, explores concepts including water quality, HABs, eutrophication, and dead zones. It encourages students to form and debate hypotheses surrounding both hypothetical and real-world HAB situations.

🦠 Students can explore the multidisciplinary possibilities of algae through material from the University of Michigan's undergraduate course on "Pharmaceutical Discovery from Cyanobacteria". The syllabus may inform student research or lecture topics, and the video is highly informative for describing key concepts and providing a visual for both lab and field work.