Primary Productivity and Light in the Ocean Lab

I came across this lab from the Monterey Bay Aquarium called “Light in the Deep Sea” a few years ago when I taught Marine Science. I recently pulled it out and used this lab in AP® Environmental Science since it matches topic 1.8 Primary Productivity of the APES Course and Exam Description (CED). Click to access the full version including teacher’s instruction and templates from the Monterey Bay Aquarium. In addition to primary productivity, students learn about predator/prey interactions, adaptations, range of tolerance and other ecological concepts.

Click for my student handout. The first 3 pages come from the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s PDF. The last page has questions that I made that correspond to various topics in the APES CED. The correlation is at the bottom of the last page. Note: I did not use all of the data sheets provided by the Monterey Bay Aquarium-only #1, #2 and #4.


The materials are affordable and will last for years. You need:

Supplies needed per group of 4 students


  • Prepare glasses for students. My student lab assistants made them all for me. They pasted copies of the template onto file folders and cut them out. Then, they stapled the 4 plastic sheets onto each glasses. You can have paperclips to help hold back the plastic pieces as kids use them or skip this step.
  • Cut a larger sheet of black felt as a background and smaller squares of the other colors.
  • Load colored pictures into Google Classroom or another online platform OR print in color. I made a separate PDF of just the pictures to do this (The pictures are found in the instructor’s guide).
These four sheets of plastic are stapled to one end. Students pull back strips as needed.

The Lab

This lab can be completed in one traditional day (45-55) min with students finishing the questions for homework.

You may need to edit some of the questions on the last page depending on where you are in the curriculum. My students have covered all these topics by the time we get to productivity, but your students may not have. However, you could keep the questions and discuss in class as a way to preview the topics.

Students learn not only about primary productivity, but about predator/prey interactions, adaptations, resource partitioning and range of tolerance. They practice with visual representations and data analysis.

Click for more labs by unit in AP®Environmental Science.