Teaching Science as Inquiry: Our Project in Hawai‘i’s Intertidal (TSI: OPIHI)

opihi-logo-smPurpose of project

The Teaching Science as Inquiry: Our Project in Hawai‘i’s Intertidal (TSI: OPIHI) professional development provides middle and high school science teachers with background content knowledge, science teaching pedagogy, curriculum, classroom materials, and authentic field-based citizen science research experience in their local watershed. The professional development is designed to prepare and equip teachers to engage students in actively studying aquatic science in Hawai‘i—a place-based, problem-based approach to learning ecological science through inquiry. The purpose of the professional development is for teachers and students to rigorously monitor Hawai‘i’s intertidal to determine if and how the species composition has changed since the original OPIHI surveys 10 years ago.


TSI: OPIHI has four major educational, scientific, and societal goals:

  1. To improve the content, pedagogical, and scientific process knowledge of teachers and students by engaging them in authentic, place-based citizen science research.
  2. To enable teachers and students to rigorously monitor intertidal regions in the Hawaiian Islands and contribute to a decadal review of the original OPIHI project.
  3. To establish a statewide network of OPIHI teachers who interact and support each other through an online curriculum and associated teacher community.
  4. To increase awareness and knowledge of the intertidal ecosystem in Hawai‘i and potential threats to that system by encouraging wise stewardship.
Project-based learning

Place-based, project-based learning is an effective way to involve teachers, and their students, in authentic scientific inquiry as exemplified in the Next Generation Science Standards Practices of Science. This type of learning allows students to connect directly with their local environment, develop a respect for nature, prepare to be wise stewards and make better-informed decisions about environmental practices and sustainable resource use. Place-based, project-based learning can thus fill a critical need by making learning relevant and bridging the growing gap between humans and the environment.

The intertidal

The intertidal is a marine ecosystem that is covered with water during high tide and exposed to air during low tide. The assemblage of organisms that live in the intertidal is uniquely adapted for the challenging set of living conditions that come from being alternatively submerged and exposed. The intertidal zone of tropical islands has been poorly studied, particularly in comparison to the intertidal zone of temperate regions. In Hawai‘i, this may be due in part to lower biomass compared to temperate intertidal regions and a small tidal range that can make the zone inconspicuous, especially compared to the more extensive and species-rich subtidal reef habitat. Despite the lack of scientific study as an ecosystem, the Hawaiian intertidal is particularly vulnerable to human threats because it lies at the interface between terrestrial and subtidal habitats, thus bearing the impact of both terrestrial and marine alterations. At the base of the watershed, the intertidal is affected by everything that happens upstream, from euthrophication to pollution and development. The ecological position of the intertidal makes it vulnerable to threats such as species invasions and climate change. In addition, the intertidal’s easy accessibility makes it susceptible to human trampling and overharvesting.

The intertidal is a model habitat in which to measure ecological change. Monitoring provides a baseline from which to measure changes in species composition over time, and can provide insights about factors responsible for observed changes, such as human impacts or the introduction of invasive species (Simberloff, Parker, & Windle, 2005). However, long-term monitoring is difficult to implement as efforts often require numerous trained individuals and ongoing monetary support. This is especially true in Hawai‘i’s intertidal, where seasonal wave activity, a small low tide window, and limited tidal range mean the intertidal is often underwater or inaccessible for sampling.

Citizen science

The accessibility that makes the intertidal zone susceptible to human impacts also makes it ideal for citizen science. Citizen science can play a valuable role in collecting ecological research data that is usually costly, time-consuming, and labor-intensive, allowing the scientific community to address questions that would otherwise be logistically or financially unfeasible. Involving citizens in the collection of data for research also has a number of direct and indirect societal benefits, including increasing awareness and understanding of environmental issues; increasing connectedness to and responsibility for the environment; and increasing ability to communicate knowledge and experience to others. Citizen science projects also provide opportunities for public education and engagement in science, creating a more scientifically literate society.

Our Project In Hawai‘i’s Intertidal (OPIHI)

OPIHI is a citizen science program where secondary school students monitor rocky intertidal areas in Hawai‘i. The program, named after a culturally important limpet (Cellana spp.), was formed in an effort to describe ecological patterns, inform conservation efforts, and engage students in science (Baumgartner & Zabin, 2008, Baumgartner, Zabin, Philippoff, Cox, & Knope, 2009). OPIHI students learn marine ecology conservation and are trained in field methodology, species identification, and sampling techniques (OPIHI methods, activities, and protocols; Baumgartner & Zabin, 2008 and Cox, Philippoff, Baumgartner, Zabin, & Smith, 2013). OPIHI provides opportunities for safe marine field-based experiences; in accordance with DOE rules, students do not get wet above the knees.

Students who take part in OPIHI are empowered by the realization that they are capable of doing science. OPIHI has a documented record of improving students’ content and skills knowledge and providing quality scientific data. Participating students showed significant increases in critical thinking and investigative skills, demonstrated increased knowledge of ecological concepts, became more aware of conservation issues, and had an overwhelmingly positive response to the project (Baumgartner & Zabin, 2008, Baumgartner et al., 2009). From 2004–2007, students at 8 schools monitored 13 intertidal sites (access to data available at http://hdl.handle.net/10524/12259). OPIHI student data resulted in the first description of community-level patterns at multiple intertidal sites across the Hawaiian Islands (Cox et al., 2013) and represented the first broad-based look at O‘ahu intertidal richness, including documentation of endemic and introduced species (Zabin et al., 2012).


pdf document Philippoff, J., & Baumgartner, E. (2016). Addressing common student technical errors in field data collection: An analysis of a citizen science monitoring project. Special Issue on Scientific Citizenship. Journal of Microbiology & Biology Education.

pdf document  Cox, T. E., Philippoff, J., Baumgartner, E., Zabin, C., & Smith, C. M. (2013). Spatial and temporal patterns of intertidal communities along the main Hawaiian islands. Pacific Science67 (1), 23–45.

pdf document  Zabin, C. Z., Danner E. M., Baumgartner E. P., Spafford, D., Miller K. A., & Pearse, J. S. (2012). A comparison of intertidal species richness and composition between central California and O‘ahu, Hawai‘i. Marine Ecology. 1–26.

pdf document  Cox T. E., Philippoff, J., Baumgartner, E., & Smith, C. M. (2012). Expert variability provides perspective on the strengths and weaknesses of citizen driven intertidal monitoring program. Ecological Applications, 22, 1201–1212.

pdf document  Baumgartner, E., Zabin, C., Philippoff, J., Cox, T. E., & Knope, M. (2009). Ecological monitoring provides a thematic foundation for student inquiry. In R. E. Yagar (Ed.), Inquiry: The key to exemplary science. NSTA Monograph on Scientific Inquiry. Arlington, VA: National Science Teachers Association. (pp. 191–209).

pdf document  Baumgartner, E., & Zabin, C. (2006). Visualizing zonation patterns. The Science Teacher, 73:60–64.

pdf document  Baumgartner, E., & Zabin, C. (2008). A case study of project-based instruction in the ninth grade: a semester-long study of intertidal biodiversity. Environmental Education Research, 14:97–114.