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Cowabunga! Some Cool Wave Theories

Chris Catanese
OverviewProcedure for teachersStudent Resources and Materials
Grade Level
Time Alloment
 3-5 forty-minute class periods


Surfers live for the big waves, and on January 28, 1998 in Waimea Beach, Hawaii many of the best surfers in the world gathered for the chance to surf the largest waves in recorded history. But most of them just watched in awe. What caused the massive waves? How did they know the waves were coming? Why does the north shore of Oahu offer the best surfing waves in the world? Would YOU surf an 80-foot wave??!!

Using the Nature episode "Condition Black," students will view the breathtaking force of the sea. They will understand how surfers study waves in an attempt to tame them. Students will also gain a greater understanding of the different types of waves, how they are created, and whether they can experience them in their local environment. Through an interactive Web site, they will learn about the parts of a wave and how energy is transferred from the wind to the water. Ultimately, the students will generate their own waves during a hands-on experiment, and create a fun video demonstrating how surfers use science to predict when the surf's up. Cowabunga!

Major corporate support is provided by Canon U.S.A., Inc. and Ford.

Subject Matter

Earth Science: Oceanography, Meteorology

Learning Activities

Students will be able to:
  • Identify the different parts of a wave;
  • Identify the atmospheric conditions that create waves;
  • Differentiate between various types of waves;
  • Utilize video to learn more about the real-world applications of oceanography as it relates to surfing.

From the National Science Education Standards. available online at

CONTENT STANDARD A: As a result of activities in grades 5-8, all students should develop abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry and understandings about scientific inquiry.

CONTENT STANDARD D: As a result of their activities in grades 5-8, all students should develop an understanding of the structure of the earth system, Earth's history, and Earth in the solar system.

CONTENT STANDARD F: As a result of activities in grades 5-8, all students should develop understanding of personal health, populations, resources, and environments, natural hazards, risks and benefits, and science and technology in society.

CONTENT STANDARD G: As a result of activities in grades 5-8, all students should develop understanding of science as a human endeavor, the nature of science, and the history of science.

From the New York State Standards, available online at:

Mathematics, Science & Technology, Standard 1:
  • Locate and utilize a range of printed, electronic, and human information resources to obtain ideas
  • Modify their personal understanding of phenomena based on evaluation of their hypothesis
  • Interpret the organized data to answer the research question or hypothesis and to gain insight into the problem
  • Carry out their research proposals, recording observations and measurements (e.g., lab notes, audio tape, computer disk, video tape) to help assess the explanation
  • Seek to clarify, to assess critically, and to reconcile with their own thinking the ideas presented by others, including peers, teachers, author's, and scientists
Mathematics, Science & Technology, Standard 4:
  • Explain daily, monthly, and seasonal changes on earth
  • Explain how the atmosphere (air), hydrosphere (water), and lithosphere (land) interact, evolve, and change
  • Describe volcano and earthquake patterns, the rock cycle, and weather and climate changes
  • Describe the effects of environmental changes on humans and other populations
Mathematics, Science & Technology, Standard 7:
  • Work effectively-Contributing to the work of a brainstorming group, laboratory partnership, cooperative learning group, or project team; planning procedures; identify and managing responsibilities of team members; and staying on task, whether working alone or as part of a group.
  • Present results-Using a variety of media to present the solution and to communicate the results
Media Components


NATURE: Episode #1905: "Condition Black"

Several of the clips used are available via streaming video on the Nature program Web site. Go to:, select "Condition Black" from the pull-down menu and three clips will appear. The clips will ONLY play with the Real Player video application (available free at While they offer the clips in both low quality for 56k dial-up users and high quality for broadband (cable/DSL/T1) users, it is suggested that if you plan on using this video with students, you only do so if you have broadband access.

Web sites:

Map of the Philippines
This is the official Web site of the Philippine Embassy in Canberra Australia. It provides general information about the Philippines as well as information about Philippine-Australian relations.

Southeast Asia
The World Factbook is part of the Central Intelligence Agency's library and reference section on their Web site. The CIA Factbook contains information about every nation in the world including maps, flags, geography and population data.

PBS, Nature: "Condition Black"
The official site for the PBS Nature series contains information about waves, streaming video clips from the episode, additional web resources about waves and surfing, and lesson plans for use in the classroom. Here the students will learn about the parts of a wave and how energy is transferred.

Portaportal is a free online tool that allows you to create and store bookmarked Web sites on the Internet. This makes your "favorite places" accessible from any computer in the world. It also means that your students will never have to type in the URL of a site you want to use in a lesson. All of the sites used in this lesson as well as those listed in the "Resources" section can be found in a Portaportal account created solely for this lesson. On the Portaportal home page log in under "Guest Access" with the log-in: ConditionBlack (no spaces).

World Stormrider Guide
This Web site accompanies the Stormrider series of books that give detailed analysis of the best surfing locations around the world based on meteorological and oceanographic conditions.


For each student: For classroom:
  • One computer with broadband Internet access for class demonstration
  • One LCD projector for computer
  • Several computers with Internet access for group activities
  • One TV/VCR
  • One video camera (for culminating activity)
  • One ruler
  • One large (at least 12" x 17") aluminum pan
  • One table-top electric fan with variable speeds and
  • One Asian-style paper fan.
  • One bag of plastic drinking straws (one straw per student)
  • A pitcher or empty 2-liter bottle to transport water into pans
  • Blue or green food coloring (optional)
  • One jump rope or long piece of rope or heavy cord
  • Four pieces of poster board and colored pens