Future City Lab: Interconnected II

Lesson Two: Oysters and their Habitat


Grade Level: 6-8
Keywords: habitat, depletion, salinity, Clean Water Act
Source: www.flickr.com/julianomarp

Time Estimate: 60 minutes 

Connection to Future City Lab: Living with Nature: How can New York City enhance its natural environment and cope with climate change? 

Connection to Port CityOysters: Bounty of New York Waters


Students will

  • understand the conditions oysters need to survive 

  • discover ways to bring oysters back to New York Harbor 

  • consider themselves as agents of change 


  • Computer-linked projector or individual internet-capable classroom computers 

  • Journals or spare paper for notetaking 

  • Handout 


  • NYS Science Standards: Unit 3 LE. Key Idea 5: Organisms maintain a dynamic equilibrium that sustains life. 

  • NYS Science Standards: LE. Key Idea 6: Plants and animals depend on each other and their physical environment. 

  • NYS Science Standards: Unit 2 LE. Key Idea 7: Human decisions and activities have had a profound impact on the physical and living environment. 

  • Next Generation Science Standards: Cause and effect relationships may be used to predict phenomena in natural or designed systems. 

  • Next Generation Science Standards: Systems may interact with other systems; they may have sub-systems and be a part of larger complex systems. 

Guiding Questions: 

  1. What conditions do oysters need to survive and how can we improve them? 



    This lesson asks students to identify reasons why oyster populations have depleted and how their reintroduction might be beneficial to New York City. They will identify key conditions that are required for oysters to survive and brainstorm possible ways that humans might make New York Harbor meet those conditions. Last, they will be introduced to key initiatives that are reintroducing oyster populations to New York Harbor and consider the ways that school-age children can support these efforts.

    Download Reading Excerpts

  1. Visual and Auditory Learning: NYC Oyster Case Study (15 minutes: 8 minutes video + 7 minutes charting)
  2. View the following video: http://www.mcny.org/story/onward-oyster . As they watch, have them make a list of reasons WHY there are no longer oysters in the harbor. Share out in class (or in small groups) possible reasons for oyster depletion in the New York Harbor and waterways.

    Teaching Contexthttps://www.billionoysterproject.org/ and Port City, 1609-1898 (Museum of the City of New York)   

    Depletion of Oysters 1609-1906:  

    “When Henry Hudson entered New York Harbor in 1609, he had to navigate the Half Moon around 220,000 acres of oyster reefs, which had sustained the local Lenape people for generations. The pristine estuary, with oysters at the base, hosted thousands of associated species and was one the most biologically productive, diverse, and dynamic environments on the planet.” (https://billionoysterproject.org/)

    The waters around Manhattan were the “greatest oyster habitat on the planet…some estimates suggest that its 350 square miles of shellfish beds may have contained as much as half of the world’s oyster population.” (Port City, 1609-1898

    The Lenape called the island Mannahatta. It was surrounded by a tidal estuary and was a natural habitat full of biodiversity. The mix of salty seawater and fresh river water created brackish tidal marshes that resulted in rich natural habitats.  (Port City, 1609-1898

    Early New York oysters, found in middens, were said to measure up to 10 inches or more. (Port City, 1609-1898

    “By the mid-19th century, New Yorkers were eating some 12 million oysters a year. In the words of one observer, they were served in ‘shanties and palaces.’” (Port City, 1609-1898)  

    By the 1920s, “New Yorkers had eaten every last oyster, reefs were dredged up or covered in silt, and the water quality was too poor for regeneration of oysters or anything else for that matter (not even the hardy boring worm which eats into wooden pilings and ship bottoms). The Harbor was toxic and nearly lifeless for more than 50 years until the passage of the Clean Water Act (1972) in which prohibited dumping of waste and raw sewage into the Harbor.” (https://billionoysterproject.org/

  3. Data Research: (20 minutes)
  4. Divide students into two groups. Have them examine the handouts for information and data resources and draw conclusions about the effect of the absence of oysters in the harbor.  

    As a class, brainstorm which metrics could be used to determine whether the water is hospitable for oysters (answers should have something to do with water temperature, salinity, presence of food, presence of predators) and what steps might be taken to introduce oysters again to New York Harbor. 

  5. Step 3: Review Steps Being Taken Right Now (20 minutes)
  6. Improving Water Quality:  

    A major turning point in New York’s history was the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972. After that point, the government stepped up efforts to penalize factories and municipalities that allowed excess and untreated wastewater to run directly into waterways. 

    If able, review either of these two reports as a class (digital projection or class computers required). You’ll find helpful graphs and images interspersed throughout. What trends do the students notice? 

    1.) 2016 Harbor Report (most recent, see page 5 for helpful definitions of key metrics) 

    2.) 1909-2009 Centennial Harbor Report (more historical background) 

    New Initiatives: 

    Billion Oyster Project:  

    Goal: “By 2035, one billion live oysters will be distributed around 100 acres of reefs, making the Harbor once again the most productive waterbody in the North Atlantic and reclaiming its title as the oyster capital of the world.” 

    BOP’s process: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/05/nyregion/oyster-project-new-york-harbor.html 

    Living Breakwaters:  


    Part of the post-Hurricane-Sandy “Rebuild by Design” initiative, there’s a plan to partner with Billion Oyster Project and create oyster reefs off Staten Island’s coast to protect it from storm surge during major storms and hurricanes. (Win-win!) 

    How can students be involved?  

    End the lesson by letting students know that young New Yorkers are helping this process right now: 

    1.) Lobbying lawmakers: https://www.westsiderag.com/2017/05/25/uws-middle-schoolers-urge-restaurants-save-your-oysters-save-the-hudson 

    2.) Billion Oyster Project fieldtrips and partnerships: https://www.billionoysterproject.org/get-involved/schools/ 

    3.) Supporting the Environment: Students can list all the ways they can help improve New York’s harbor (and the environment more generally) in their daily lives. 

  7. Step 4: Closing Share
  8. Ask:

    What can we learn from the story of the oysters?  

    Are there other natural resources we are currently depleting? 

    Why might there be cause for hope? 

Additional Resources:

Fieldtrips: This content is inspired by the Port City, 1609-1898 and Future City Lab galleries in the Museum’s flagship exhibition, New York at Its Core. If possible, consider bringing your students on a fieldtrip! Visit http://mcny.org/education/field-trips to find out more. 


This series of lesson plans for New York at Its Core was developed in conjunction with a focus group of New York City public school teachers: Joy Canning, Max Chomet, Vassili Frantzis, Jessica Lam, Patty Ng, and Patricia Schultz.

This project was made possible in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

The views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in these lessons do not necessarily represent those of the Institute of Museum and Library Services.