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Bioaccumulation in the sea Capability: Interpret representations NoS achievement aims: Communicating in science Contextual strands: Living world Level : 5

Science Learning Hub  

This resource illustrates how a simple interactive model on the Science Learning Hub can be adapted to provide an opportunity for students to strengthen their capability to make sense of representations in the context of science.

Curriculum Aims and AOs

NZC LINKS: The Nature of Science strand


Achievement objectives relevant to this resource

Communicating in science

Develop knowledge of the vocabulary, numeric and symbol systems, and conventions of science and use this knowledge to communicate about their own and other’s ideas.


 Use a wider range of science vocabulary, symbols and conventions.

Apply their understanding of science to evaluate both popular and scientific texts (including visual and numerical literacy).

NZC LINKS: Living World


Achievement objectives relevant to this resource


Understand how living things interact with each other and with the non-living environment.


 Investigate the interdependence of living things in an ecosystem.

Learning focus

Students consider how popular texts in the form of electronic models can be used to convey complex science ideas in easily understood ways.

Learning activity

Allow students to have an initial play with the interactive model.  What biological ideas (theories) does the model illustrate? [Food chains, bioaccumulation.]

Adapting the resource

The following steps direct attention to how the model communicates complex ideas in simple terms.

  1. Ask students to explain how the model communicates:
    • what eats what [The click and drag is rejected if a link is not correct.]
    • the presence and amount of the toxin [A red dot represents actual presence; the more red dots the more toxin is present.]
    • the differences in overall toxin accumulation [The number of red dots that can accumulate in total represents the comparative amount of toxin that builds up.].     
  2. Ask students to use this knowledge of how the model works to explain which species would seem to be most at risk from bioaccumulation of this toxin? [To do this they will need to compare dots accumulated per feeding interaction.]
  3. Ask students:
    • How does this model simplify the idea of bioaccumulation so it can be more easily understood? [For example, what does the model leave out? Would a static model work as well?]
    • What sort of information would scientists need to gather before they could build a model such as this one? [Actual quantitative data about rates of accumulation in different species, probably using bioassay techniques, which are discussed elsewhere in the Toxins resources on the Science Learning Hub.]
    • How would scientists represent this work to an audience of their peers? [Probably in a refereed journal article, with full details of the methodology, data gathered and analysis techniques.] 
  4. You could then discuss possible “costs” of glossing over the extent and complexity of the scientific research that sits behind any model that simplifies science ideas to communicate them to a non-expert audience. [For example, almost every aspect that would build other scientists’ trust in the ideas about bioaccumulation in this marine environment is missing in the model. There is no option but to take the model on trust (or perhaps reject it because you don’t “believe in it”) unless you know how to develop critical questions about the underlying science and then search elsewhere for answers to these.]  
  5. Literacy extra: Consigning a whole complex process to one noun, based on a related verb, is a feature of science texts. The name given to this grammatical feature is nominalization. Students could think about other examples and how much “unpacking” is needed to really explain the process that they signal [For example, evaporation, crystallization, sublimation, respiration, carbon sequestration, subduction – the list is almost endless.]  

What’s important here?

Scientists represent their ideas in a variety of ways, including models, graphs, charts, diagrams and written texts. Understanding the role that modelling can play conveying science explanations is an important aspect of building science literacy. Students need to appreciate that models are not just fanciful guesses but rather are based on the best theoretical thinking available to scientists at the time. They also need to understand that models are highly selective representations: their explanatory power often rests as much on what they leave out as on what they include.

What are we looking for?

Can students describe the specific communication strategies built into the interactive model?

Do they appreciate that, even though the model is very simple, it conveys quite complex science ideas, including basic quantitative comparisons, based on actual scientific research? 

Opportunities to learn at different curriculum levels

For suggestions about adapting tasks in ways that allow students to show progress in gathering and interpreting data see  Progressions .

Exploring further

There are a number of interactive resources on the Science Learning Hub and many more elsewhere on the internet. However only some have been designed for the explicit purpose of communicating a concept (many simply convey information). Any that do use interactivity to enhance conceptual understanding this could be critiqued in the same way as this example. For example, Who’s for dinner? (Resource L25 in the Digistore) is a simple game that models the complex principles of ecological energetics.  

Support material in the Assessment Resource Banks collection includes further ideas about nominalisation and other aspects that make science text challenging to read and understand:

Language of Science (Specialised Language): Nominalisation

More general features of science writing are explored in the resource National Survey of Garden Birds.

Other resources for this capability

Watch Me! (L1) Ready to Read series 2009, Guided Reading level: yellow

Seeds (L1 & 2) Connected 1, 1999

Light and Colour: Our Vision of the World (L1 & 2) Building Science Concepts, Booklet 10

Standing Up: Skeletons and Frameworks (L1 & 2) Building Science Concepts, Booklet 51

An Interview with a Glass of Water (L3 & 4) Connected 2, 2002

Ferns (L3 & 4) Connected 3, 2002

Why Does It Always Rain on Me? (L3 & 4) Connected, Level 3, 2012

Spring is a Season: How Living Things Respond to Seasonal Changes (L3 & 4) Building Science Concepts, Booklet 44

The Air Around Us: Exploring the Substance We Live in (L4) Building Science Concepts, Booklet 30

Catch My Drift (L4 & 5) Connected, Level 4, 2012

The elements: element analyser interactive (L5) Digistore on TKI

Garden Bird Survey: Participants’ Stories (L5) Landcare Research webpage

The Modified Mercalli Intensity Scale (L5) GNS Science webpage

Key words

Science Learning Hub, ecology