Great Salt Lake Institute K-12 Lessons and Activities

Extreme Environments: Great Salt Lake

GSLI developed this ecology curriculum in collaboration with the Genetics Science Learning Center at the University of Utah. It includes activities for teachers and students for outside as well as in the classroom.

Big Lessons from the Microscope on Great Salt Lake

GSLI worked with the West Valley City Division of Arts and Culture to create this ARTrageous online curriculum that includes captivating discussions about the issues the lake is facing as well as classroom activities. Also check out the education page from FRIENDS of Great Salt Lake.

GSLI Worked with Utah teachers to create lesson plans to inspire bringing the lake into the classroom. The following list contains lessons and activities that can be used within the classroom setting to help gain a better understanding of the Great Salt Lake.

Lesson Plans and Experiments

Great Salt Lake is Changing Lesson Plan

Lesson Description 

In this lesson students will explore the phenomenon of a shrinking lake. By observing aerial photos and analyzing lake elevation over time students will discover that GSL is shrinking and will develop and use a model to understand why. Through a simulation game and exploration students will learn about the effects of a shrinking lake and what we can do.

Teaching overview

  • Day 1 – Engage with the ways that Great Salt Lake is changing by examining images, graphs, and data sets related to the change in lake levels over time.
  • Day 2 – Explore the question: “What is causing Great Salt Lake to shrink?”
  • Day 3 – Take a look at the ways a shrinking lake can affect organisms within the Great Salt Lake ecosystem.
  • Day 4 – Explain the effects of the shrinking lake with research on ecosystem services.
  • Day 5­ and 6 – Elaborate by evaluating projects to preserve the lake.
  • Day 7 – Evaluate with an argument for why we should not divert more water from GSL.

Accompanying Resources

Author of Curriculum: Megan Black

Great Salt Lake Ecosystem Lesson Plan

The lesson plan connected to the above link provides an eight-day flow of educational activities in which students use the Great Salt Lake ecosystem to explore food webs and how changes in living and nonliving factors affect different populations. The lesson fulfills Standards 6.4.3 and 6.4.4.

Teaching overview

  • Day 1 and 2 – Engage students with images of Great Salt Lake and Set up a “Great Salt Lake Museum” with various learning stations.
  • Day 3 and 4 – Explore the Great Salt Lake food web.
  • Day 5 and 6 – Explore the effect of salinity levels on brine shrimp populations.
  • Day 7 – Explore the effect of salinity for other populations in the ecosystem.
  • Day 8 – Evaluate student learning. Students are columnists for a local paper, and must write a letter to a reader who has asked, “Is Great Salt Lake a ‘dead sea’?”

Accompanying Resources

Author of Curriculum: Megan Black

Great Salt Lake is Salty Lesson Plan

In this lesson students will compare water from a fresh lake to water from Great Salt Lake to begin to build a conceptual model for how salt dissolves in water. The lesson focuses on students using and developing models of molecules to build a better understanding of the particle nature of matter.

Teaching Overview

  • Day 1 – Students will engage with samples of water and explore salinity by investigating dissolving salt.
  • Day 2 – Students will experience molecular models of dissolving and evaporating to better understand the salinity of the lake.
  • Day 3 – Students will elaborate by asking the question, “Where does the salt in GSL come from?”
  • Day 4 – Students will use models of the GSL and their knowledge will be evaluated with individual explanations of what they have learned.

Accompanying Resources 

Author of Curriculum: Megan Black

Floating on Great Salt Lake Lesson Plan

Through exploring the phenomenon that it is easier to float on salt water than on fresh water, students will develop a conceptual model for molecules and how the arrangement of molecules affects density. 

Teaching Overview

  • Day 1 – Students will engage with models of floating on GSL and explore by comparing weights of salt water and fresh water.
  • Day 2 – Students will learn about why salt water is denser through conceptual models.
  • Day 3 – Students will compare the densities of fresh water, salt water, and an egg as well as read about floating objects in order to elaborate on the lessons from previous days.
  • Day 4 – Students’ knowledge will be evaluated through explanatory models.

Accompanying Resources

Author of Curriculum: Megan Black

Pelicans on Gunnison Island Lesson Plan

In this lesson students will explore interactions between a population and the environment as they learn about why so many American white pelicans spend the spring and summer on Gunnison Island in Great Salt Lake. 

Teacher Overview

  • Day 1 – Students will engage with images of Gunnison Island and pelicans.
  • Day 2 – Students will use data to explore where pelicans find food.
  • Day 3 – Students will read articles about pelicans.
  • Day 4 – Students will elaborate on environmental changes and be evaluated through written explanations.

Accompanying Resources

Author of Curriculum: Megan Black

Oolite Reactions Lab Instructions

Oolitic sand, the type of sand found on Great Salt Lake's beaches, is a unique geological component of the area. Oolitic sand is found only in a few locations around the world. It forms when minerals present in the water gather around a small particle in the water (often a brine shrimp fecal pellet). The large white beaches at Antelope Island, Spiral Jetty, and near the Great Saltair are all composed of oolitic sand. This lab will have students combine different substances with oolitic sand and determine whether or not a reaction has occurred.

Student Scaffold for Designing and Conducting Experiments

This document outlines a simple interactive method for designing and conducting experiements. Students get to interact with the document by filling in blanks, placing and replacing sticky notes, and drawing a graph. The structure of the document can help guide students through a broad variety of experimental contexts.


Great Salt Lake Field Trip Guide

Field-based experiences are a phenomenal way to learn about the Great Salt Lake and the Great Salt Lake Institute has been a part of taking students to the lake for many years. These resources are a field trip guide based on successful field trips the institute has run in the past. The resources are meant to equip teachers with everything they need to facilitate a meaningful trip to the lake. Information is provided concerning everything from the planning phase all the way through the field trip and back to your school's campus.

collecting rock samples at Great Salt Lake

group of people at the edge of the Great Salt Lake at sunset

This bird guide contains concise information about 12 of the most common birds spotted at the Great Salt Lake. The guide includes a photograph of each bird as well as a detailed description of the bird, its scientific name, its voice, its habitat, and its nesting habits. 

Creator of guide: Hatley Laughridge

Guide to Common Great Salt Lake Birds



Bird Beak Adaptation Facilitation Guide

This activity explores the ways that different local birds have adapted to their environment and their food sources. The activity looks specifically at how different birds have evolved with different types of beaks to gather specific foods. Students will get the chance to collect food with various types of "beaks" (tongs, chopsticks, ladles, etc.) and draw conclusions about the role and importance of adaptation.

Bird Detective Activity

This is a short activity that teaches participants what an ornithologist is and introduces them to the feeding habits of Loggerhead Shrikes.

Time required: 15–30 minutes

This game is designed to teach students about the magnification of toxic chemicals as they make their way through successive trophic levels. Students will each get assigned a type of organism at the beginning of the game and as the organisms interact (eat one another) toxic chemicals (colored chips) will be passed through the food web, accumulating at higher trophic levels. 

Time required: 30–45 minutes

Brine shrimp are an essential part of the Great Salt Lake ecosystem, and the commercial brine shrimp industry generates $40–60 million each year. In this activity, students experiment to determine the effect of abiotic factors on the hatch rates of this important organism.

Time required: 20–30 minutes to gather supplies, 90 minutes of class time for setup and design, 1–2 days to hatch brine shrimp.

In addition to completing the "Hatch-a-Cyst" activity, students may be interesting in seeing what brine shrimp look like in action. The Great Salt Lake Ecosystem program brochure provides step-by-step instructions for hatching brine shrimp in a miniature ecosystem. The brochure is also a great resource for extra information about brine shrimp and their life cycle.

This activity is an experiential way for students to learn about the challenges a pelican might face in their effort to migrate and breed each year. In this activity, students put themselves in the shoes of American White Pelicans living in the Great Salt Lake ecosystem. Students will have four "lives" as pelicans and will do their best to survive as they move to various locations (stations set up by the facilitator). Each location represents a real place a pelican might be found migrating, nesting, feeding, etc. At each location, students will learn about various environmental factors that affect pelican populations. 

This is a facilitation guide for a short interactive activity that allows students to taste the salinity of various parts of the Great Salt Lake in comparison to the salinity of ocean water.

Water Cycle Bracelet Facilitation Guide

This is a short activity designed to teach students about the flow of a water molecule through the Great Salt Lake water cycle. Students will pretend to be a water molecule as they travel through the cycle (from one station to another) and build a bracelet that represent their journey. This activity is an experiential tool to show students how water moves, and to get them thinking about the importance of the water cycle to living things. 

This document helps students explore some of the things that make the north arm of the Great Salt Lake unique and interesting. It can be difficult to gather the resources to physically take students to explore the north arm of the lake. Although it's not quite the same as being there, this webquest is a great way to expose students to this unique section of the lake.

Author of webquest: Wendy Roberts

Wetlands Web Facilitation Guide

This activity, designed by the Tracy Aviary, is an experiential way to illustrate the connections between various parts of Utah's wetland ecostystems. Each student is assigned a living or nonliving thing that is a part of a wetland ecosystem. Students are then asked to make connections between one another, utilizing a string that gradually unravels from one organism to the next. At the end of the activity, the string connects all the organisms and the interdependence of the individuals becomes evident. View the full facilitation guide with more details for framing the activity and debriefing suggestions.

Time required: 30–45 minutes

Winogradsky Columns Instructions

A Winogradsky column is a simple microbial ecosystem easily cultivated in a jar or other container. In this activity students use sediment and water samples from the Great Salt Lake or another local ecosystem to cultivate and compare microbial life from various locations.

Time required: 1–3 hours for sampling (if you go to the Great Salt Lake), 60 minutes of class time to build columns, 10–15 minutes weekly to observe chnages for several weeks to three months.

Other notes: The "Turbidity Measurement" document can be used to gauge the opaqueness of the water in your Winogradsky columns over time. The opaqueness, or turbidity, of the water can be an indicator of the quantity of life in your miniature ecosystems.

Turbidity Measurements