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  • Although invisible to the naked eye, marine microbes drift continually in our ocean systems, quietly consuming up to 50% of the Earth’s CO2 through photosynthesis and producing nearly as much oxygen. Their diversity and delicate beauty is little understood by the general public.

    Rights: UTS Adrift Project

    Marine microbes

    Marine microbes are diverse, including but not limited to bacteria, algae, diatoms, dinoflagellates, fungi and plankton. Their diversity helps to sustain the larger marine ecosystem.

    Due to climate change, their ocean habitats are undergoing unprecedented change – parts of the ocean are warming and becoming more acidic. The Adrift project calls on citizen scientists to help map the ocean trajectories of marine microbes within a simulated web environment. By compiling data along drift trajectories, citizens help ocean scientists to better understand the biological experiences of marine microbes and more accurately predict their future.

    Rights: UTS Adrift Project

    Adrift simulation

    An example of the simulated trajectories of marine microbes on the Adrift citizen science project.


    Reach: Worldwide

    Nature of science focus: Online citizen science (OCS) projects can be used to develop any of the Nature of Science (NoS) substrands. Identify aspects of NoS that your students need to get better at or understand more fully and then frame your unit to be very clear about these things when you do them.

    Science capability focus: Interpret representations

    Science focus: habitat, climate change, adaptation

    Some suggested science concepts:

    • Living things depend on other living and nonliving things.
    • Human activity has an effect on both living and nonliving things.
    • Life processes are common to all living things, and these can occur in different ways.
    • The features of an environment affect what types of plants and animals can survive there.

    Many concepts could be learned – focusing on a few can often be more powerful. Develop your learning outcomes and success criteria from these concepts as well as the Nature of Science strand and the science capabilities.

    Some examples of learning outcomes:

    Students can:

    • describe the characteristics of some species of marine microorganisms
    • describe a range of things (both living and nonliving) that microbes need for survival
    • discuss the challenges microbes face in an ocean environment
    • discuss the meaning of the representations they interpret from the data
    • explain a link between their representations and the effect of human activity.

    It’s a great entry point for students and citizens to get involved and begin to understand the challenges of living in the ocean today

    Professor Kate Sweetapple, University of Technology Sydney

    Marine microbes

    Marine microbes are diverse, including but not limited to bacteria, algae, diatoms, dinoflagellates, fungi and plankton. Their diversity helps to sustain the larger marine ecosystem.

    Marine microbes play a critical role in sustaining our planet. Project Adrift uses Gymnodinium – a single-celled chaining organism – as the representative species for its research.

    Rights: UTS Adrift Project


    Gymnodinium – a single-celled chaining organism – is a genus of dinoflagellates, a type of marine plankton. Project Adrift uses Gymnodinium as the representative species for its research.

    About Adrift

    Taking part in the Adrift project is not only a way to explore the beautiful world of marine microbes but also a way for students to visually engage with ocean currents and the surprising variations in both temperature and nitrogen levels throughout the oceans. In doing so, students will be able to develop their ability to understand graphical representations in a real and meaningful way whilst contributing to real scientists’ ongoing research in this area.

    Embedded within a unit focusing on habitats, adaptations or climate change, this project is suitable for students from year 7 onwards. There is a useful tutorial that assists and guides you through your first analyses.

    Rights: UTS Adrift Project

    Using Adrift

    Adrift allows citizen scientists to virtually ‘drop’ microbes into the global ocean and provides an entry point for students to begin to understand the challenges of living in the ocean today.

    This project is a collaboration between the Climate Change Cluster and School of Design at the University of Technology Sydney, together with the Centre for Science Communication at the University of Otago. As one of the research partners is based at Otago University, it is possible to contact the scientists and ask any questions or even arrange a Skype meeting.

    Nature of science

    Using this OCS project allows valuable conversations with students about their developing understanding of how scientists work, in particular, the use of modelling. Models are often used when the idea, object, process or system scientists want to think about is not directly observable. In this case, there is so much ocean that the task is just too large. There is also considerable scope for developing students’ experience in interpreting representations.

    Related content

    Discover more about plankton and plankton in the Ross Sea.

    Find out more about terrestrial environmental factors – biotic and abiotic.

    Read about an 8-week voyage by NIWA’s research vessel Tangaroa to survey marine life and habitats around Antarctica in 2008.

    Find out more about our marine habitats and the organisms in them.

    Use the Ministry of Education Connected article Catch My Drift by Sarah Wilcox to learn more about phytoplankton.

    Explore the range of resources we have under our models in science resources.

    These topic planners offer suggested pathways through some of our marine resources and connect to relevant programmes offered by NZ Marine Studies Centre – included is one on marine habitats.

    Here are some planning tips for using a citizen science project with your students.

    Useful links

    For more information about the project, see these two news articles:

    Download this teacher resource from Otago University on ocean acidification.

    Explore more about where microbes can be found. The science research vessel JOIDES Resolution has extensive education resources, including Where Wild Microbes Grow.


    This outline was written as part of Victoria University of Wellington’s Citizen Scientists in the Classroom project funded by the Ministry of Education’s Teaching & Learning Research Initiative.

      Published 24 July 2019 Referencing Hub articles
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