April 24, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Our Ecological Footprint | Inquiry and Integration Across the Curriculum


Every time we open the local newspaper, listen to the evening news, or visit our favorite national online news source, we’re confronted with stories that directly or indirectly tell us something about the state of the planet. Whether it’s a debate about zoning ordinances for construction in wetland areas, the line item for fossil fuels costs in the annual school budget, local industrial soil contamination, or the price of gasoline at the pump, issues of environmental sustainability permeate our lives.

Exploring the impact of human activity on the environment provides high school students with an opportunity to understand these issues from the inside out. By conducting hands-on research, teens will interact with their surrounding environment, collect evidence, and analyze results as well as the implications for their community. Drawing on these implications allows them to reflect on the ways in which ecological considerations intersect with economic, social, and health considerations locally, nationally, and globally.

By asking students to study not just the science, but the scientists as well, by showcasing how environmental scientists carry out their work—from the tropical rain forests along the equator to the ice deserts of Antarctica—we provide young people with authentic models of how to think scientifically, pose and refine research questions, and collect and analyze data.

Essential Question:
What is impact of human activity on the environment?

Supporting Questions:
How do scientists study the environment?
How do environmental considerations intersect with economic, social, and human health considerations?
How can citizens assist scientists with the task of monitoring environmental issues?

Grades: 9-10

Disciplinary Lens:
Depending on the local projects selected by the teacher, a range of scientific fields can be applied, specifically Environmental Science.

Next Generation Science Standards:

ESS3.A: Natural Resources

ESS3.C: Human Impacts on Earth Systems

ESS3.D: Global Climate Change

ETS1.B: Developing Possible Solutions

Common Core State Standards

Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of science and technical texts, attending to the precise details of explanations or descriptions.

Determine the central ideas or conclusions of a text; trace the text’s explanation or depiction of a complex process, phenomenon, or concept; provide an accurate summary of the text.

Follow precisely a complex multistep procedure when carrying out experiments, taking measurements, or performing technical tasks, attending to special cases or exceptions defined in the text.

Compare and contrast findings presented in a text to those from other sources (including their own experiments), noting when the findings support or contradict previous explanations or accounts.

Develop claim(s) and counterclaims fairly, supplying data and evidence for each while pointing out the strengths and limitations of both claim(s) and counterclaims in a discipline-appropriate form and in a manner that anticipates the audience’s knowledge level and concerns.

Burns, L.G. (2010). Tracking Trash: Flotsam, Jetsam, and the Science of Ocean Motion. [Scientists in the Field]. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Frienkel, S. (2011). Plastics: A Toxic Love Story. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Kurlansky, M. (1998). Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World. New York: Penguin.
McKibben, B. (2010). Eaarth: Making a Life On a Tough New Planet. New York: Henry Holt.Sivertsen, S. and Sivertsen, T. (2008). Generation Green: The Ultimate Teen Guide To Living an Eco-friendly LifeNew York: Simon Pulse.

Digital Texts:

Dot Earth blog, The New York Times:

Environmental Coverage, The New York Times

“Scientists at Work” blog, The New York Times (Note:  This is a great archive; the blog ended in June 2013)

Profiles in Science,” The New York Times
:  This new series replaced the previous “Scientists at Work” blog.

The Science Teacher, December 2012, National Science Teachers Association

Fishwatch, National Oceangraphic Atmospheric Association (NOAA):

United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) links:

The Schoolyard Longterm Ecological Research Network

Ship2Shore Program

Algalita Education

International Transition Network

Kathryn Buckley’s Cod Fish Lesson, NSTA 2014 Conference (From this link, input “fishing pier” in the search box; in the results section, click on “Conference Materials)

Teaching Ideas:

—Get involved with a Schoolyard Long Term Ecological Research Project. There are 26 official Long Term Ecological Research Stations, created by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to, “conduct research on ecological issues that can last decades and span huge geographical areas.” Most sites maintain Schoolyard LTER programs that allow students to take measurements and contribute data to the work of actual scientists. Sites are located from California to Georgia, as well as in more exotic regions such as Antarctica and Moorea. These programs are one of the single best ways to get students involved in real research and are easy to set up because there are established experimental protocols. The bulk of the work is setting up and logistics rather than experimental design.

—Have students research nearby locations that have sustained environmental damage to learn about the history of their area. For example, students might research a Superfund site located in their town,  study EPA documents that cite the chemicals that have been released into the groundwater, and examine local papers to learn what actions citizens and local governments have taken in response. If possible, students can visit the location and assess the surrounding area to hypothesize about the environmental impact. If there is running water, such as a stream by the site, they might measure rate of water flow and calculate rate at which pollution travels through local watershed. Google Maps are helpful once students return to classroom to identify and understand watershed. Consider with students the actions they might take.

—Participate in the Ship2Shore Program, run by the Algalita Marine Research Institute. This organization was founded by Captain Charles Moore, the navigator credited with discovering the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.  Participants in Ship2Shore communicate with researchers who are on an ocean plastics cruise and learn firsthand how they study and track ocean plastics pollution. Algalita also offers other lesson plans, including one that allows students to map ocean plastic movement without registering for Ship2Shore.

—Monitor one or two factors on or near school grounds. Some simpler suggestions include measuring dissolved oxygen in nearby water bodies or taking soil samples from areas around town that may have been impacted by human activity. If concerns arise from results of testing, students try to identify the source of problem, predict how this issue affects the local environment and human health and, lastly, create a plan to help mitigate damage to the area. Plans can be simple, such as to continuing to monitor a site, or extend as far as reporting on the research results in written form, contacting local officials, and attending town meetings to participate in the civic process.

—Examine the effects of overfishing and climate change on cod populations in the North Atlantic by reviewing data from the National Marine Fisheries Service. Teens can study the history of fishing in New England and its effect on a specific local economy. Through your school’s or state’s digital subscriptions, you might be able to access stories from area newspapers over time, providing early data, and depicting problems and solutions from the past and their connection to current debates about catch levels and sustainable fisheries. Through the analysis of cod and economic data, students can create a sustainable fishing plan that seeks to increase cod populations while considering the needs of stakeholders in the fishing industry. Of interest may be a video lecture of the University of New Hampshire’s Jeff Bolster, who studies maritime history in the context of contemporary scientific data of the Atlantic fisheries. Bolster’s April 2014 lecture at the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University is available on YouTube.

—During or after hands-on research on the human impact on the local environment, ask students explore ongoing research findings beyond their community. Using The New York Times’ “Dot Earth” blog as a clearinghouse, have them read a range of articles and locate a topic that they are most interested in exploring. What is the problem? What are the challenges suggested by current research findings? What are some of the ways the research suggests we can mitigate our impact on the environment? What connections can be drawn from the local research conducted by the class and this national or global concern? This work could be conducted in science class, or in tandem with social studies and English assignments.

—Why do we need to protect the planet from human activity? As a launch to your exploration to prompt inquiry, or at the conclusion, to have students apply what they have learned, read and respond to Alan Lightman’s May 2014 op-ed in The New York Times. Is the Earth really in jeopardy, or merely the living things within it? Does the planet need us to save it? Or, do we need to save the Earth, if we hope to save ourselves? What is the difference?

—How do we find solutions to the problems created by the intersection of human needs and wants and their impact on the planet? For one example, look at Diane Cardwell’s May 2014 article “A Ghost Town, Going Green” from The New York Times. Is your school located within or near one of the transition communities mentioned in the article? If so, what is that community doing to shift its reliance on fossil fuels and work within a framework of sustainability? Explore what transition towns do by reading and watching some of the resources from the International Transition Network. What are the problems that different communities face? What are some of the solutions they have developed? Are those solutions appropriate for your community? Why or why not? What’s the evidence? Ask students review the research and write editorials for your local newspaper and/or letters to local elected officials or school administrators suggesting best “first steps” to move your community toward greater sustainability. This research may be completed in conjunction with other content-area projects, or as an extension of original student research in science.

—Give students the opportunity to explore the first-person entries of the “Scientists at Work” blog or the third-person “Science Profiles” series, both from The New York Times. Assign small groups certain entries to read or scientists to follow, or leave it open ended. Next, have students begin to compare and contrast the entries that they have read. What do they see as common challenges that the scientists face? What are some of the similarities in the research being conducted? How are scientists using technology to conduct their research? What is the impact of research? Is there any evidence of how policy makers or other scientists are using the research results?


Other recent articles in this column consider Lincoln: A Multifaceted Man,  Measurement, and Earthquakes and Volcanoes.

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