The Excitement of Exploration


Students begin this 3-4 day investigation with a discussion and activity centered around seven traditional reasons that people explore. Then they go on an imaginary journey to the unknown. Once the journey is over, the students are given clues to discover that their trip was in a manned submersible in the Bering Sea. They learn about a researcher who is actually studying the Bering Sea in a submarine, then watch and discuss a video featuring underwater explorer Robert Ballard. As a final activity in this investigation, students research past and present ocean explorers and share their discoveries, inventions, or research.

Activity Type
Multimedia, Project


Class Time
3-5 class periods

Grade 6


Focus Questions

  • Why do people explore?
  • Why is the ocean relatively unexplored?
  • What are some contributions of past and present ocean explorers?

Enduring Understandings

  • The ocean is largely unexplored.
  • Humans must use ingenious ways to study the ocean.
  • Exploration leads to discovery.
  • Science and technology can be used to detect and solve problems.


50 Minutes

Why People Explore (adapted from a NOAA Ocean Explorer lesson plan from
Students will work in small teams, each of which will be given a different reason why humans explore. Each team will discuss the reason for exploring as a group and will develop one sentence about that reason to add to an EXPLORE poster. With all the reasons on the poster, the word EXPLORE will be complete.

Explain to the students that all humans are explorers, including each one of them. They are going to learn seven traditional reasons that people explore and help create an EXPLORE poster to post in the classroom.

  1. Divide students into seven teams. Assign each team a letter from the word “explore.”
  2. Give each student a copy of the three-page handout Why Do We Explore?
  3. Have the students read about the traditional reason for exploration given to their team that matches the letter assigned to their team.
  4. Have the students, as a group, write a sentence that best explains or summarizes their team’s reason for exploring. The team’s sentence must begin with the letter assigned to the team.
  5. Ask each team to brainstorm to decide on and draw an illustration (optional) for their sentence.
  6. Have each team copy their sentence and illustration (if completed) onto a sentence strip.
  7. The members of the team will place their sentence strip on the large poster and explain their sentence to the rest of the class.
  8. Ask students to copy all the sentences into their science notebooks.

An alternative option for the above activity is to allow students to brainstorm their own ideas for why they think people explore. A discussion can follow the brainstorming activity, sharing the reasons given in the “Why Do We Explore” handout.

This next activity is an adaptation of “Journey to the Unknown,” a NOAA Ocean Explorer lesson plan from
Ask students to close their eyes. Tell them they are going on an expedition.

Read the following description to students (Do not read the words in parentheses):

You are a scientist on a mission. You enter a small vehicle with one seat in a small cramped area, and settle yourself into the seat and insert socked feet into power system control pedals. Adjust pedal length to your legs to ensure you have ability to rotate peddles and maintain leg circulation during the hours you will spend in that position. Confirm that external ports are closed and emergency ballast release latches are locked but accessible.

Receive safety equipment from crew and stow within easy reach: fire extinguisher, rebreather, drinking water, emergency procedures protocols, flashlight and notebook. Go through final life support, power and computer system pre-mission checks. On signal, support crew lowers and vacuum-seals the acrylic dome hatch.

Initiate communications on VHF radio. Turn on video camera and microphone for recording observations. Enter audio time stamp: State your name, date, location, mission, and time. Secure cross chest safety belts, pull your sonar screen down and begin sequence of activating systems from the computer control panel. Over the VHF radio, you hear “Are you prepared for launch?” Confirm ”Ready for Launch” and give visual high sign to crew outside the dome.

Brace yourself for liftoff from the ship’s deck as the crew releases the lifting ring and you are freed to maneuver away from the ship. You hear from Mission Control “Engage thrusters and proceed.” “Roger, thrusters engaged, proceeding.”
Motors begin to whir as your vehicle slowly begins to move forward, rocking gently, and you begin to enter another realm. Thrusters emit high pitched whine as propellers propel the vehicle.You hear the whine of thrusters begin. Since you are the only person in the vehicle, you are also the pilot. You establish your compass heading and you’re off!

As you travel away from the ship, the light fades and you hear slight creaks as your vessel adjusting to tremendous pressure forces.
You begin to hear voices from the mother ship. She is communicating your vehicle’s direction and observations. “I have a heading of 030. I see many creatures. It is getting darker and I am switching on the outside lights.” An hour or so later, you begin closing in on your destination.
The interior and exterior cameras are frantically positioned and focused upon new and amazing objects and organisms whizzing by.You are fascinated by the array of things you can see from your viewing port.
Suddenly, a sparkling object moves past. “WHAT WAS THAT???” (Bioluminescent fish or other organisms.) It seems to be following another object. It moves out of your range of viewing. You busily begin speaking into your recorder to excitedly record every amazing sight that you see in detail.

You see that your vessel is getting near a surface and you begin to observe objects there. Large branching objects come into view. You attempt to collect a few of these with the clawlike manipulator arm and put the objects into the sample basket. (Deep sea corals)
Farther ahead, you see something interesting scurry into the mud. You quickly take a core sample. Things are moving in the mud!” (Polychaete worms)

Slowly, you lower the tube corer to the surface, and use the manipulative arm to press it about 30 centimeters into the surface. Then you pull it up and return it to the quiver where it was stored. It looks like an interesting core sample! A dial on the control panel catches your attention. It reads 426 meters! It is incredible that the surface you see is rich with such life.
You focus HMI lights and the video camera to carefully record the creatures and habitats you are seeing.
All too soon, the mother ship communicates that it is time to return. You return slowly, totally amazed by what you have seen through your viewport—things that you have never seen before in your entire life. You cannot wait to begin analyzing and observing the new sediments and species that have been collected for your research project.
(Thanks to Michelle Ridgway for helping with this description).

When finished, ask students to open their eyes. Ask them where they think they went on their expedition. Stimulate the discussion by asking them to respond to the following questions:
Did you feel excited? Why do you think it was dark?
What might the sparkling object have been? What were the branching objects?
What do you think the things were that were moving in the mud?
What was the dial that read 462 meters?
Do you think this might have been an exciting experience if it was real?
Would you have been frightened if you had actually been on board?
Do you think that scientists get excited when they are making discoveries?

Tell students you are going to provide them with something to help them try to determine where they went on their imaginary expedition. Give each group of 3-4 students a copy of the “Journey to the Unknown” photos. Tell the students to think about the things that they visualized during the expedition. Give students time in their groups to explore the photos and discuss the things they visualized during the “expedition”.Michelle

As a class, have students discuss their ideas, answering each other’s questions and challenging ideas. Then tell them that their imaginary trip was aboard a deep-sea submersible in the Bering Sea, and that some people have actually gone on a similar trip. The photos were of the submarine used and some of the underwater organisms seen. Show them the page of photos of Michelle Ridgway with DeepWorker 7, the submarine. Explain that Michelle has explored parts of the ocean around Alaska in this submarine. Tell them they will learn more about some of the places that Michelle has gone later in this unit.


20 Minutes

Tell students that they’ll be watching a video featuring Robert Ballard, another ocean explorer, and share the following information about him from the New York Times.

“From an early age, Robert Ballard was intrigued by the deep. He’s perhaps best-known for his work in underwater archaeology; in addition to the Titanic, he has found the wrecks of the Bismarck, the USS Yorktown, the nuclear sub Thresher (on a top-secret mission for the Navy–for which the Titanic was his cover story) and John F. Kennedy’s PT-109.

His contributions to our scientific knowledge of the ocean are just as awe-inspiring. He was in the first team of humans to view the deep-sea vents, and to understand how life can not only survive but thrive in these deep black waters, under extreme pressure and at extreme temperature.

Mr. Ballard has long been blessed with the special luck of a successful explorer as well as the special knowledge of a leading scientist.”

Show students the 18-minute video Exploring the Ocean’s Hidden Worlds (Robert Ballard 2008).


20 Minutes

Use the following questions to discuss the video:

  • Robert Ballard starts off by asking a big question. What is his question?
  • How much of our planet is ocean, and how much of the ocean has been explored?
  • Do you think our country considers it more important to explore outer space than to explore the ocean?
  • What is Mr. Ballard trying to say when he talks about the Easter Bunny?
  • Robert Ballard says that when he was in school he had to give the wrong answer to get an “A”? What did he mean?
  • What are some surprising things that Mr. Ballard and his team found by accident?
  • What is the advantage of using ROVs instead of sending humans down in submersibles?
  • What’s the mission of the Okeanos Explorer, and what types of technology will it use?


45-55 Minutes

Ask students if they can name any other oceanographers or marine scientists. If they come up with names that are not on the following list, you may choose to add their contributions to the list. Explain that many important discoveries have been made in the ocean and that research in the ocean often requires the invention of new technologies. They will spend a few minutes learning about some noteworthy people. Ask each student or each pair of students, depending on the size of your class, to pick a strip of paper from a jar. Each strip of paper will have one of the following names on it:

  1. Jacques Cousteau
  2. Jacques Piccard
  3. Captain Edward L. Beach
  4. William Beebe
  5. Vagn Walfrid Ekman
  6. Edward Forbes
  7. Sir James Clark Ross
  8. Louis F. de Pourtales
  9. James Alden
  10. Wyville Thomson
  11. Sir William Thomson
  12. Commander George E. Belknap
  13. Captain H.H. Gorringe and the USS Gettysburg
  14. Commander Charles D. Sigsbee and the steamer Blake
  15. Alexander Agassiz and the steamer Albatross
  16. Athelstan Spilhaus
  17. Marie Tharp
  18. Capt. James Cook
  19. Sylvia Earle

Provide internet and/or library access. Tell students they have 15 minutes to find out why the person on their strip of paper is noteworthy in the field of oceanography or marine science.

Distribute the Ocean Explorer Worksheet, and ask students to complete it by finding the answers to the following questions.

  1. When did the scientist do their work?
  2. What did they discover or explore or invent?
  3. Why was their work significant?
  4. Is there any other interesting information about this person?

After 15 minutes, (or when students are finished), ask them to stand up and line up in order of events. Let them decide where to place themselves if dates of two people coincide or overlap. Once they are satisfied with the lineup, begin at the earliest date, and move up the “timeline,” asking students to quickly share the information they found.
The completed timeline can be posted on the wall or board in the classroom. As new people and/or events are learned, they can be added to the timeline.


15 Minutes

Ask students to spend a few minutes reflecting on ocean exploration, then write their thoughts in their science notebooks, responding to the following:
What are some contributions of past and present ocean explorers?
What might be the most compelling reason to explore the ocean?

Curricular Connections

Social Studies/History. Students can research what other events were happening during the time(s) the various ocean explorers were making discoveries or inventions. Noteworthy items and/or events can be added to the timeline.

Language Arts. Students can write their own version of a “Journey to the Unknown”.

Ideas for adapting to local environment or context:
Ask students if they are familiar with any local or state scientists or explorers.

Teacher Needs

Teacher Prep

Read through all of the investigation materials, view the video and prepare to show it to the class. View the handouts and make copies as necessary.

Prepare the ziplocks with the mud and sand. Arrange for internet and/or library access for the Elaboration part of the investigation, or collect reference books that will provide the information needed. Write names of oceanographers/scientists on small slips of paper.

About 1.5 hours to read through investigation, watch video, gather materials, and copy handouts.

Materials List

Student Handouts
Science notebooks
Why Do We Explore?
“Journey to the Unknown” photos
Ocean Explorer Worksheet
Video discussion questions

Items for Group Display
Page of photos of Michelle Ridgway

video Exploring the Ocean’s Hidden Worlds

Material Items
Sentence Strip paper
Reference books, if necessary
Facility/Equipment Requirements
Computer with internet access attached to a projector for video viewing
Chalkboard or whiteboard

Student internet access or adequate library resources

Student Needs

Prior Knowledge

Ability to work in small groups. Basic understanding of plate tectonics, photosynthesis, and pH will help students to understand the video.


ballast, protocol, audio, sonar screen, HMI lights, archaeology, geophysicist, ROV, submersible, mid-ocean ridge, mercator projection, Rift Valley, telepresence, edifice, hydrothermal, methane, inextricably

Related Lessons

Human Related, Oceans/Coast


Science GLEs Addressed

  • 6th Grade: SA1.1, SE1.1, SE3.1

  • 7th Grade: SA1.1, SE3.1 

  • 8th Grade: SA1.1 

Other GLEs Addressed

[bws_pdfprint display=’pdf’]

This site is registered on as a development site.