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Chesapeake Bay

Activity 1 (Engage): The Dead Zone

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Activity Overview

Activity Summary

In this introductory activity, students are introduced to the phenomenon of fish kills in the Chesapeake Bay by looking at photographs. They make observations of the fish in order to develop hypotheses and research questions that will guide the rest of the investigation.


Activity Objectives & Materials

Approximate Time: 30 minutes



  • Students will make observations of the anchor phenomenon

  • Students will ask questions to better define the anchor phenomenon

  • Students will develop preliminary hypotheses about what causes dead zones



  • “Clues” board with sentence strip about the dead fish

  • Additional sentence strips/paper for adding to the clue board.



  • Phenomenon Observations, Hypotheses, and Questions

Standards Connection

DCI: LS2.C: Ecosystem Dynamics, Functioning & Resilience

SEP: Asking Questions and Defining Problems

CCC: Cause & Effect



What do you know about fish?

  • The purpose of this warmup is to prime students’ thinking about what fish need to live to help them better come up with questions and hypotheses about what caused the fish kill in the Chesapeake Bay.


1. Frame the Activity

Tell students that today they are beginning a new investigation. For this investigation, they are going to be investigating a (murder) mystery to see if they can figure out whodunit.

Step 1

2. Introduce The Phenomenon

Show students either a dead fish (from the grocery store, preferably something that looks similar to a menhaden) or use the picture below: 

Dead menhaden single.jpg

Hand out the phenomenon observations sheet, and have students write down observations. For example:

  • The fish is on the sand (not in the water)

  • The scales are silver

  • The fish has a big eye

  • The fish’s tail is forked

  • The fish has some kind of cut near its gill

Next, show students the picture of the menhaden fish kill below and tell them that this picture comes from the Chesapeake Bay:

Fish kill.jpg

Have students make more observations in the second row on their observations sheet. Key noticings:

  • There are a lot of the same kind of fish

  • There doesn’t appear to be a net or a fishing line

  • The fish have colors that make them look unhealthy

Teacher Tip: Make sure that when students are making observations, they are not drawing conclusions. For example, if students say “the fish are dead,” push them to describe what observations they made to reach that conclusion (ex. they’re not moving, they’re at the surface, they’re floating on their sides). These observations may provide valuable clues that “the fish are dead” does not.

3. Develop Hypotheses

Ask students what they think caused these fish to die. Have them take a moment to jot down some ideas on their observation sheet in the middle column. Afterwards, have them share out, and make a list on the board or chart paper and save the list for future activities. If they are stuck on hypotheses, have theme think back to what they know about fish that they shared during their warmup (ex. they have gills, they eat other fish, plants, and algae, etc.).

Modification: If students are uncomfortable sharing their hypotheses or questions out loud, have them write them on sticky-notes or slips of paper and put them up on a bulletin board.

Step 4

4. Develop Questions

Ask students what questions they need to answer to find out what killed the fish. Their questions should be related to their hypotheses. For example, if they think the fish died because it didn’t have enough food, we should ask, “How much food is in the water?” and “What do fish eat?” If our hypothesis is that they were killed by a disease, our question should be “Are there any diseases that kill fish in the Chesapeake Bay?” They may also add more general questions like “What do fish need to live?” and “What is the water like in the Chesapeake Bay?” Have them write their questions the right column. After students have had a chance to write some questions, have them share out, and make a list on the board or on chart paper that you can save for future activities.

5. Framing the Investigation

Tell students that for this investigation, they are going to take on the role of marine biologists to try to solve the mystery of what killed these fish. They will use clues that they gather throughout the investigation to try to solve the mystery. Point out a spot on the wall where you have posted the word “Clues”. Add your first clue: dead fish in the Chesapeake Bay.

Optional: Have students track the clues as well using the optional student clues sheet.

6. Formative Assessment

Have students use what they learned during the activity to write an observation, a hypothesis, and a question that go together into a single statement. For example:

  • I saw that there were a lot of dead fish together, so I think that they were killed by poison that someone dropped in the water. My question is: is there poison in the Chesapeake Bay?

Reading: Dr. Lewis Linker - Air Quality Champion

Recommended homework or in-class reading: At some point during the module, have students read the interview with this module’s Air Quality Champion to get them into the frame of mind of the kind of work they’ll be doing during this investigation.

Name: Dr. Lewis Linker

Title: Modeling Coordinator and Team Leader for Science & Analysis

Organization: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Chesapeake Bay Program Office

How does your work relate to air quality?

I lead a team that creates models and simulations of the Chesapeake’s airshed, watershed, and estuary so decision-makers can make a plan for how to clean up the Chesapeake Bay watershed and tidal waters. The plan is called a Watershed Implementation Plan (WIP) and it’s a road map of all the actions we all need to do, from New York to Virginia to get healthy and safe air and waters in the Chesapeake region. Without computer simulations of the airshed and watershed we wouldn’t know what a restored Chesapeake looks like or what would be the best way to get there. By problem solving, and communicating, we help decision-makers to deal with challenges like population growth and climate change in the Chesapeake region.

Lew Linker for AQC.jpg

What motivates you to come to work every day?

Restoring the Chesapeake Watershed and Bay is a really, really big deal to me.  When I was growing up, the Rouge and Cuyahoga rivers were catching on fire, the Potomac River next to the Nation’s Capital stank in the summer heat, and the Chesapeake seemed to be in a death spiral. Now it’s all coming back, very slowly, bit-by-bit, but coming back, and it’s very satisfying that my Modeling Team has played our very small part in the Chesapeake recovery. Also, I know that my Modeling Team depends on me to do my job and to support them every day, and I depend on them too, so that’s a big motivator - being there to support a team with an important mission.


What education and career path did you pursue to have the position that you have today?

My early career path was all over the place! At first, I thought I would go into medicine and I completed a biology and chemistry undergraduate degree at Towson State. Then I became very interested in marine biochemistry research. In the end, I decided that I really wanted to do something that had more promise of immediate, concrete, and significant results that I could point to, so I switched to environmental engineering and I have made that my career ever since. It now sounds all very thought out and methodical, but at the time it really was more of a hot mess!  Ultimately though, my broad diversity of technical and scientific training prepared me well for a modeling background. I guess it shows that you never know how it’s going to finally turn out.  But if you are fortunate enough to really go after learning something that interests you, and if you can find a way for that learning to make a contribution to the general public, then things will turn out alright.


What is your workspace like?

Our Modeling Team works with computer simulations of air and water quality, so really our office can be anywhere!  We could work on the far side of the moon as long as we had a good internet connection (and good snacks, of course!).  Our Modeling Team runs our experiments and tests just like other scientists, but they are all run in a virtual computer space.  In fact, our Airshed Model is simulated in North Carolina, the Watershed Model is done in Annapolis, Maryland, and our Estuary Model was run by in Vicksburg, Mississippi. So our Modeling Team is really all over the place - but not yet on the far side of the moon!


What accomplishment are you most proud of? 

When my two boys were very young, they knew my work was to clean up the Bay.  So naturally they assumed that once I got to work, I put on an orange jump suit, picked up a bag, and started cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay.  Even though my Modeling Team is very accomplished, and have received many awards, I’m most satisfied in being able to join with my Team and with the all of the citizens in the watershed to “pick up a bag” in order to clean up the Chesapeake’s airshed and watershed.

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