Billion Oyster Project

How do you make an oyster reef? Part 1


Oysters & Organisms Lessons



Class Periods




Subject Areas


Students examine photographs of existing oyster reefs, looking for clues about how to make a reef. Then they propose reef designs and share ideas about those proposals.

Materials and Resources


You’ll need a good way for the class to view photographs. Ideally, project the images onto a screen. Another option is distributing handouts, but you must have access to a color copier to make this worthwhile. Ideally, you can also use a document camera to facilitate the immediate sharing of students’ sketches in the last part of the lesson. Alternatively, you can postpone that part of the lesson until the next day, and collect students’ drawings for scanning and/or photocopying.

Instruction Plan


Tell your students:

Look at this series of photos of oysters reefs.  Note that many oysters reefs are completely underwater, in turbid (cloudy) waters, where it’s hard to take a good picture.  So use your imagination to create a mental image of what an oyster reef might look like when it’s completely underwater!

Note that a few of these pictures show a different species of oyster, but the reef structures are quite similar.

As they look at the pictures, ask your students:

What do all or most of the pictures have in common?  What are some differences that you notice?

Based on these pictures, what are some of the ingredients of a healthy reef? Create a list.

(Can you spot any evidence of monitoring or scientific experiments going on at this reef?) 

(I wonder what that is, in the distance…)

The next two pictures were taken underwater, but they don’t show as much area.  

(Do you think they were taken in tanks/aquaria, or in a different kind of body of water?  Why?)

You could also use this lovely blog posting for both text and pictures:


Tell your students:

The first two reefs that we just observed are pretty large, and they are probably able to maintain their population or even grow in size.  We don’t have reefs like that right now in New York City, but we’d like to!

Review a definition of a self-sustaining reef.

Then assign your students to small groups and tell them:

In order to restore a self-sustaining reef, what questions would you need to answer? Get in groups of 3-4 to brainstorm.

Students will hopefully begin to come up with questions like:

  1. Where in New York City’s waters would the reef go?

  2. What materials would we need to build the reef?

  3. What age(s) of oysters would we need to begin with??

  4. What kind of benthic surface (surface at the bottom of the water) would be best to start with? What should the first (lowest) layer of the reef be made out of?

If they are struggling, you might compare the activity to deciding where to put a garden. What factors would they need to take into account?


Staying in small groups, distribute the Handout, “How do you make an oyster reef?”


Have the different groups share their reef designs with the class.  

If possible, use a document camera. If you don't have access to one, you can postpone this part of the lesson, and collect students' drawings to scan them for sharing with the class the next day.

Encourage students to:

  • Ask each other clarifying questions about their designs and their thought processes

  • Point out the differences among the different groups’ designs

  • Discuss the points of disagreement, asking students with different opinions to justify their thinking, challenge one another, and if they change their minds, to say so and explain what persuaded them to change their minds.