Using Avatar to Teach About Marine Ecosystems

Using Avatar as a Set Induction for National Geographic’s Imaginary Ecosystem Activity in a High School Biology Classroom

Lori Roberts is a high school biology teacher in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Lori is a leader in ocean education and is a graduate of National Geographic Education’s two-year professional development program, the National Teacher Leadership Academy.

The planet Pandora, the setting for the James Cameron film Avatar, is a world filled with unique organisms and ecosystems from the imagination of a visionary. Showing this film, or a portion of it, is the perfect way to introduce students to the National Geographic Education Marine Ecosystem Invention activity from the Marine Ecology, Human Impacts, and Conservation unit. Following is a description of how I used Avatar as this type of engagement exercise.

Students were asked to think about Pandora as they watched the film. I gave them a viewing guide that I adapted from a New York Times article (Drawing Inspiration from AVATAR) to help immerse them in this vivid imaginary world. I challenged my students with questions designed around topics such as, “Why blue Na’vi (the indigenous people of Pandora),” and “What is bioluminescence?” Students completed their viewing guides independently and then were asked to share with another student.

Then we followed the National Geographic procedure in the Marine Ecosystem Invention activity. 

Lori_Post1_MarineFoodWebEG.jpgAn example of a student-designed ecosystem from the Marine Ecosystem Invention activity

I placed students into groups and assigned them each one real-world
ecosystem, such as a coral reef. Students collaborated within their
groups to design their ecosystems, using butcher paper to draw and label
the trophic levels. Students were also asked to give their ecosystems
unique names.


I feel that watching the film helped my students get their creative juices
flowing to design their ecosystems–they made immediate connections to
the visual content of the film. Kids today get a daily dose of images
from various media sources, and activities such as this one help them
connect the dots between the media they see and the information in their
textbooks, and between imaginary worlds and real-world environments.

Do you have more ideas for how film, multimedia, and news articles can
be used to teach students about ocean science? Share your
thoughts with us!

Please note: It is necessary to teach your students basic ecology
principles like biomes, limiting factors, and trophic levels before
teaching this activity.

By Lori Roberts

One response to “Using Avatar to Teach About Marine Ecosystems

  1. We love the work Lori Roberts is doing to make ocean science education come alive for high school students by incorporating the film Avatar.

    For another stimulating ocean literacy project for high school students check out The From The Bow Seat Ocean Awareness Student Contest. The 2014 contest allows students to work in groups or independently in any of three tracks: Art, Essay or Advocacy to explore the timely issue of Ocean Plastics Pollution. There are also great highly visual inspiration links highlighting artists who teach the world about plastics through their artwork. It’s great stuff that gets the attention of high schoolers. Winning students, teacher and schools can win up to $1500.

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