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Ocean Currents in a Cup

Grade: 5-9

Lesson Time: 1 hour

Materials Required:

  • Clear plastic cups or beakers, at least 250 mL (or 8 oz)
  • Pipettes
  • Salt
  • Food coloring
  • Room temperature freshwater
  • Room temperature water with about 200 grams (about half a cup) of salt per liter (about a quart) dissolved in it
  • Ice cubes made from freshwater, as similar as possible in shape and volume


Students compare the melt time of an ice cube in freshwater versus saltwater and try to explain the results.

Massachusetts Science, Technology, and Engineering Standards:

Grades 3-5; Earth and Space Science

  • Describe how global patterns such as the jet stream and water currents influence local weather in measurable terms such as temperature, wind direction and speed, and precipitation
  • Give examples of how the cycling of water and its change of state, both in and out of the atmosphere, has an effect on climate

Grades 6-8; Heat Transfer in the Earth System

  • Explain the relationship among the energy provided by the sun, the global patterns of atmospheric movement, and the temperature differences among water, land, and atmosphere

Grades 9-10; Matter and Energy in the Earth System

  • Provide examples of how the unequal heating of the Earth and the Coriolis Effect influence global circulation patterns, and show their impact on Massachusetts weather and climate
  • Oceans redistribute matter and energy around the Earth, through surface and deep water currents, tides, waves, and interaction with other Earth spheres
  • Explain the dynamics of oceanic currents, including upwelling, density, and deep water currents, the local Labrador current and the Gulf Stream, and their relationship to global circulation within the marine environment and climate

Activity download: Ocean_in_a_cup

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