Author Technology and Engineering Teacher - Volume 79, Issue 7 - April 2020
PublisherITEEA, Reston, VA
ReleasedApril 15, 2020
Technology and Engineering Teacher - Volume 79, Issue 8 - May/June 2020

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SOCIALLY RELEVANT CONTEXTS: SMART Buoys: Integrating Data Visualization and Design to Reduce Ocean Life Casualties


In recent years, the impact humans have had on the world, and specifically the world’s oceans and marine life, have surfaced as one of the most continuously discussed topics in news feeds and other media outlets (Elliott, 2018). Specifically, current research and well-known stories have detailed the disastrous effects—direct and indirect—humans have had on the oceans (Ocean Priorities, 2009; Weiss & McFarling, 2006; Yong, 2019). The impact of human activity on marine life through unsustainable actions, recreational activities, pollution, and consumption patterns continues to lead to calls for attention and action of individuals worldwide. Many organizations, researchers, and individuals have sought to raise awareness of the importance of ocean conservation and sustainable actions in the hopes of counteracting the impacts of human-environment interactions by shaping how humans view, use, and manage the ocean environments (United Nations, 2019; United Nations Department of Economic & Social Affairs, 2014).

Today, the world’s oceans show the results of many subtle and profound changes (Davidson, et al., 2012); for example, recent research shows that no area of the ocean remains completely unaffected by human influences (Halpern, et al., 2008). Further, investigation shows that approximately forty percent of our vast oceans are strongly affected by multiple human impacts (Halpern, et al., 2008). These include—but are certainly not limited to—pollutants (i.e., chemical contaminants, debris, and even sonar noise), by-catch, shipping, overharvesting, global warming, ocean acidification, and the altering of food webs (Halpern, et al., 2008; Schipper, et al., 2008). Negative impacts to natural environments and wildlife, such as these, continue to increase globally as the demand for space and resources continues to grow in order to accommodate the world’s population.

Oceans overall continue to be affected by changes in temperatures, acidity levels, and even available nutrients; these impacts transition to the living things found within these waters. Specifically, marine mammals—key players in our ecosystems—have found themselves in the crosshairs of many of these changes (Schipper, et al., 2008). The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) currently identifies one-fourth of marine mammals to be at risk of extinction (Davidson, et al., 2012), and estimates show that approximately three-fourths of marine mammals experience high levels of human impact within their geographic ranges; impacts from activities such as fishing, shipping, pollution, sea surface temperature change, ocean acidification, invasive species, oil rigs, and human population density (Schipper, et al., 2008).

Among marine mammal mortality rates, the single greatest threat has been found to be accidental mortality (i.e., vessel strikes and fisheries’ by-catch [unwanted catch collected during the fishing of other species]) (Schipper, et al., 2008). In Florida, one case of impact became the subject of multiple news stories, as it was found that one-fourth of all recorded manatee deaths had resulted from manatees being struck by boat props (Calleson & Frohlich, 2007). Manatees, however, are not the only documented cases of high accidental mortality rates within marine mammal populations. Every year thousands of seals are also killed by boat props—casualties resulting from boats inadvertently speeding over feeding seals, with often fatal results. Although these casualties are not as drastic in numbers within all marine species, the issue of ecosystems being affected by human activity (such as boating) is universal and has had an adverse effect on the environment and marine life populations (National Ocean Service, 2019).


TETMJ20SRCFig1Innovations for Saving Marine Wildlife

Over time, a range of approaches and methods have been used in an attempt to study the behavior and movement of marine animals. Only recently however, has data been provided and available publicly for a variety of species. Sharks, for example, are studied using pop-up archival tags (PAT)—a type of tag that collects various information about specific species patterns, such as the depth of dives (calculated from pressure), ambient light used to estimate and track locations, as well as internal and external body temperature (Musyl, et al., 2011). New techniques and devices such as these are advancing our understanding of animal species and their environmental patterns, which may provide individuals with valuable information needed to continuously create and innovate methods of aiding marine wildlife.


As GPS technology has resulted in mapping and tracking data for a variety of marine life, it is possible that accidental mortality incidents among marine animals can be reduced as boaters are made more aware of their surroundings. For example, it is feasible that GPS technologies could be used to alert boaters to slow down around, or avoid, high-population-density areas of marine mammals. To build upon this concept, the authors developed a lesson to provide students with the opportunity to engage in core design practices that are informed through data visualization techniques of marine wildlife patterns to reduce the amount of marine-life casualties. In this lesson, students are tasked with creating a solution—through the use of engineering design—to address one of the greatest threats to marine animal species by reducing boating accidents. Specifically, students are tasked with designing a buoy that will provide boat drivers with a warning about nearby marine life so they can respond appropriately.


Engineering Classroom Connections

In this lesson, students engage in analyzing generated data from (Figure 1), identifying patterns and creating a data visualization model based on their own research of scientific data in order to inform design decisions. Students consider the interactions from their chosen combination of variables involving marine wildlife movement/patterns, human impacts, and environmental factors in order to develop a visual representation of a geographic location with high marine wildlife activity overlapping regions of high human impacts. Students are challenged to use their newfound insights derived from their visual model to drive design decisions as they design and prototype an automated buoy for a specified “ocean” region in the hopes of alerting boaters of nearby marine life.

This lesson incorporates current and relevant global issues in the hope of providing a way to engage students in a multitude of engineering and technical concepts, while also developing crucial applied skills necessary for the 21st century, such as critical thinking, information literacy, and technology literacy (Dean, et al., 2010). Additionally, the many parallels between the engineering and visualization processes may reinforce critical areas such as collaboration, creativity, imagination, critical thinking, and problem solving (Byrd, 2018). As students work through the engineering process and visualize the data associated with the project, this lesson facilitates informed decision making with visual representation of the data (created by the student) to support those decisions and further reinforce engineering and data visualization principles.

The lesson includes a classroom design challenge (Figure 2, page 21) and the associated lesson designed to integrate STEM content through the authentic and socially-relevant context of a current global issue, marine-life causalities. It is clear that news stories and policies are reflecting the need for individuals to be informed of the impacts humans have on the earth, not only on a large scale, but also through small, everyday choices. Integrating the authentic and socially relevant context of a global issue within lessons not only aids to engage students, but also promotes the importance of working towards imagining, designing, modeling, and even testing potentially viable solutions to the problems they see—and hear of—around them.



It is the authors' hope that providing an engineering challenge that requires the use of data to inform design decisions will call attention to the value and advantages that data collection and analysis can provide to students during their decision process. While the processes of tinkering and trial and error within an engineering/technology classroom are common, it is also important for educators to provide students with opportunities in which research and data visualization can be used to inform and drive design decisions. It is crucial that students are knowledgeable of—and develop experience with—a multitude of processes and principles that they can employ to approach the challenges and problems they hope to solve. Therefore, providing socially relevant design opportunities for students, while also incorporating challenges requiring research and data, can hopefully result in a more effective solution than what could be achieved through simple trial and error.


NOTE: The lesson plan for this activity is below.



Byrd, V. L. (2018). Parallels between engineering graphics and data visualization: A first step toward visualization capacity building in engineering graphics design. Engineering Design Graphics Journal, 82(2), 1-30. 

Crain, C. M., Halpern, B. S., Beck, M. W., & Kappel, C. V. (2009). Understanding and managing human threats to the coastal marine environment. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1162(1), 39-62. doi:10.1111/j.1749-6632.2009.04496.x.

Daidson, A. D., Boyer, A. G., Kim, H., Pompa-Mansilla, S., Hamilton, M. J., Costa, D. P., Ceballos, G., & Brown, J. H. (2012). Drivers and hotspots of extinction risk in marine mammals. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109(9), 3395-3400. doi:10.1073/pnas.1121469109.

Dean, C., Ebert, C. M. L., McGreevy-Nichols, S., Quinn, B., Sabol, F. R., Schmid, D., Shauck, R. B., & Shuler, S. C. (2010). 21st century skills map: The arts. Tucson, AZ: Partnership for 21st Century Skills.

Elliott, K. (2018). Only one-eighth of the ocean is free of human impact. Retrieved from

Grubbs, M. E. & Strimel, G. (2015). Engineering design: The great integrator. Journal of STEM Teacher Education, 50(1), 77-90.

Halpern B. S., Walbridge, S., Selkoe, K. A., Kappel, C. V., Micheli, F., D’Agrosa, F., Bruno, J. F., Casey, K. S., Ebert, C., Fox, H., Fujita, R., Heinemann, D., Lenihan, H. S., Madin, E. M. P., Perry, M. T., Selig, E. R., Spalding, M., Steneck, R., & Watson, R. (2008). A global map of human impact on marine ecosystems. Science, 319, 948–952.

Jones, K. R., Klein, C. J., Halpern, B. S., Venter, O., Grantham, H., Kuempel, C. D., Shumway, N., Friedlander, A. M., Possingham, H. P., & Watson, J. E. (2018). The location and protection status of Earth’s diminishing marine wilderness. Current Biology, 28(15). doi:10.1016/j.cub.2018.06.010.

Musyl, M. K., Domeier, M. L., Nasby-Lucas, N., Brill, R. W., Mcnaughton, L. M., Swimmer, J. Y., Lutcavage, M. S., Wilson, S. G., Galuardi, B., & Liddle, J. B. (2011). Performance of pop-up satellite archival tags. Marine Ecology Progress Series, 433, 1–28.

National Ocean Service. (2019). What is the biggest source of pollution in the ocean? Retrieved from

Science Friday Initiative. (2009). Ocean priorities. Retrieved from

United Nations. (2019). Oceans & seas: Sustainable development knowledge platform. Retrieved from

United Nations Department of Economic & Social Affairs. (2014). Open working group proposal for sustainable development goals. Retrieved from sdgsproposal.html

Rosenbaum, S. (2018). How heartbreaking turtle video sparked plastic straw bans. Retrieved from

Schipper, J., Chanson, J. S., Chiozza, F., Cox, N. A., Hoffmann, M., Katariya, V., & Baillie, J. (2008). The status of the world's land and marine mammals: Diversity, threat, and knowledge. Science, 322(5899), 225-230.

Sheavly, S. B., & Register, K. M. (2007). Marine debris & plastics: Environmental concerns, sources, impacts, and solutions. Journal of Polymers and the Environment, 15(4), 301-305. doi:10.1007/s10924-007-0074-3.

Weiss, K. & McFarling, U. L. (2006). Altered oceans. Retrieved from

Yong, E. (2019). A troubling discovery in the deepest ocean trenches. Retrieved from



Vanessa Santana is an undergraduate Engineering/Technology Teacher Education student at Purdue University. She can be reached at

Scott Bartholomew is an assistant professor at Purdue University in the Engineering/Technology Teacher Education Program. He can be reached at

William Rowe is an undergraduate Engineering/Technology Teacher Education student at Purdue University. He can be reached at

Vetria Byrd is an assistant professor of Computer Graphics Technology and Director of the Byrd Data Visualization Lab in the Purdue Polytechnic Institute at Purdue University. She can be reached at

Greg Strimel is an assistant professor of Technology Leadership and Innovation and the coordinator of the Design & Innovation Minor at Purdue University. He can be reached at

Kevin Han is a graduate student in the Computer Science department in Aarhus University, Denmark. He can be reached at