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U.S. Navy Museum Cold War Gallery Lesson Plan
How Do Submarines "see" Underwater?
Developed by J. Paul Parker, McCants Middle School: An IB Candidate School, Anderson, SC
2012 Naval Historical Foundation STEM-H Teacher Fellowship
  Instructional Goal

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During this inquiry based lesson the students will demonstrate an understanding of how SONAR is used in submarines to develop a "picture" of what is in the water around them; from fish, to other submarines, to surface ships, or mountain peaks that protrude up from the ocean floor. The students will develop their understanding of how scientist use SONAR to "see" what the bottom of the ocean looks like, where underwater volcanoes are located, and how the ocean floor is constantly moving and changing shape, all based on the way sound waves behave in a medium (water).

As the student small groups begin to examine how SONAR (sound waves) has been used and developed by U.S. Navy submarines, they will collaboratively develop and write an exposition paper about uses and behavior of sound waves in other areas of science; areas such as medicine, navigation, guidance, echolocation in bats, dolphins, and birds, fish finders for sport fishermen, and future potential uses.


SONAR was first invented in 1906, by Lewis Nixon, to help detect icebergs in the ocean. In 1915, with the invention of submarines and the need to locate them underwater, Paul Langevin invented a device that could detect submarines. By 1918 the United States and Britain developed "active sonar" that sent out a signal and received the reflected wave. Many military sonars now use "passive sonar" which listen to sounds in the water and use powerful computers to compute ship, submarine, or "sea creature" locations and tracks. During World War II the Americans coined the term SONAR which stands for SOund NAvigation and Ranging.

Video Resources

play videoDive, Dive: "The Submariners" (1967):  This segment from the 1967 Navy documentary "The Submariners" follows the nuclear attack submarine USS Shark (SSN-591) during a dive. Source: Naval History and Heritage Command, UMO-41.

play videoSonar: "The Submariners" (1967):  This segment from the 1967 Navy documentary "The Submariners" explains the basics behind the use of sonar. Source: Naval History and Heritage Command, UMO-41.

Sonar Room Exhibit:  Check out the Sonar Sounds panel in the Sonar Room exhibit to hear what common ocean noises sound like on sonar.

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Navigating an Obstacle Course

Objective:  Can you navigate an obstacle course without seeing or touching anything? The students will work as a team to guide one team member through an obstacle course, much like submarine crews do, without the benefit of visual stimuli from "seeing where they are going".

Materials:  Cardboard box with hole cut in it large enough student to place head into (or a blindfold), cones (arranged in a zigzag random course in the room), meter stick or meter tape, ball of string, notebook, pencil, miscellaneous tools/equipment (the teacher can include an assortment on things here to allow students to determine the usefulness of materials for solving the problem)


The teacher will pre-set the cones in an arrangement that requires the teams to "navigate" through the cones. Any arrangement is acceptable but do not set the course too long for the time limits of the activity.
  1. Each student group (team) will be given a box with a hole cut in it large enough to place over one member's head. (That individual will be designated the "submariner"), a meter stick, and a ball of twine, and other materials.
  2. Each group will choose one member to be the "submariner", and that person will place their head into the box, or place the blindfold over their eyes (so there is no sight of the room).
  3. The team, or group, will collectively devise a method they think will be effective in guiding the team member in the box around a designated obstacle course. The team should record their ideas in their notebooks for reference. Teams may not touch, or hold on to, the submariner.
  4. The members of the group will assist and direct, or "drive", the submariner around a designated course using the team's agreed upon method of guidance. Each group can use any method except touch, or vision, to guide the team member through the course.
  5. The teacher should move about the room challenging each group with guiding questions to direct them when they get "bogged down", questions that will stimulate recall of important prior knowledge, questions that will stimulate the students to think independently and "out of the box", questions that will cause students to apply and analyze ideas (data), and questions that will cause students to choose, judge, or defend their ideas.
  6. Groups can "regroup" at any time and revise their method of guidance.
  7. After 10-15 minutes each group will compete to guide their "submariner" through the obstacle course. The groups will be timed based on how effectively they guide their team member through the course. If a "submariner" touches an obstacle the group will have to restart their "submariner" back at the beginning of the course. The group with the lowest combined times for the course will be declared the winner.


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