Carbon & Climate
Introduction — A Guide to Using This Unit
Climate change may be the single biggest challenge that faces our planet today, but not everyone agrees about its scope, what effects it will have on people and the environment, or how we should address it. Perhaps more than any other environmental issue, the topic of climate change challenges science teachers to accurately convey data, reveal assumptions, and engage critical-thinking skills. This unit provides activities and resources to help educators explore with their students some of the complex issues involved in climate change.
This unit is designed as an introduction to climate science and its associated social, political, and environmental challenges. It explores several essential questions:
- What is climate?
- How does climate affect living systems?
- What role does carbon play in climate?
- What can we learn from past changes in the global climate?
- What can individuals do about climate change?
Geared for sixth- through eighth-grade classrooms, the unit is built around two middle-school standards from the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS):
These standards focus on how Earth has changed over time and on ways that human activities affect Earth’s systems. In exploring the concepts, students apply multiple science and engineering practices, such as asking questions, using models, analyzing and interpreting data, and engaging in argument to understand the significant and complex issues involved. While the unit is based on these two NGSS standards, it will also help meet relevant state science standards for middle schools. (Almost all states address the topics of climate, climate science, or climate change in one or more middle school grades.)
The unit also integrates math, language arts, and other discipline areas in fun and creative ways, drawing on both mathematics and English language arts benchmarks from the Common Core State Standards. Please see the Standards Connections for a chart showing the standards addressed in the unit.
The Project Learning Tree (PLT) philosophy of teaching students how to think, not what to think, is integrated throughout the unit. PLT enhances critical thinking, problem solving, and effective decision-making skills, teaching students to weigh various sides of an environmental issue to make informed and responsible decisions. Like all PLT materials, each activity in the unit is also correlated to PLT Conceptual Framework. This framework outlines the core knowledge students will acquire while participating in PLT’s units and lessons.
The unit was also developed with an eye toward the Guidelines for Excellence released by the North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE), which identify characteristics of high-quality environmental education. The unit embodies, in particular, the NAAEE guideline that environmental education should be taught in a nonbiased format. Throughout the unit, students build content knowledge as they experience each supporting activity and then explore solutions to reduce their own carbon footprints.
Addressing Climate Change in the Classroom
Climate change is not a typical controversial issue. There are deep political and religious divides across the nation regarding this issue, despite nearly unanimous agreement among climatologists. The most important thing educators can do is help students build the knowledge and skills to have reasoned conversations about climate change in their communities. We probably will never have all the answers, but we need to understand the risks, tradeoffs, and potential results of our actions.
Some educators hesitate to embark on the topic of climate change because it is so complex and multi-faceted. While we have provided information to help you address some of these issues, perhaps a better strategy is to ask students to address some of these issues. We encourage you to have students research the answers to their own questions. We have provided links to websites and other resources to begin your collective investigation (see Additional Resources for Carbon & Climate).
Flexibility Is Key
This unit is designed to be flexible. You may use individual activities as stand-alone investigations or move through all five of the unit’s activities from beginning to end. In addition, you may incorporate individual activities or the unit as a whole into other units of study, such as energy or ecosystems.
This unit was originally designed for middle-school classrooms, but it could also easily be used with 9th or 10th grade students. The activities address the higher levels of cognition found in Bloom’s Taxonomy and Webb’s Depth of Knowledge.
This unit is designed around the 5E Instructional Model, which incorporates the elements of engagement, exploration, explanation, elaboration, and evaluation (see Figure 1). This model is based on the constructivist approach to learning, which understands that learners build or construct their knowledge of the world based on their experiences. This instructional model incorporates a variety of instructional strategies such as student exploration, critical thinking, hands-on activities, scientific argumentation, project-based learning, STEM learning, and application of 21st century skills to move students to a deep understanding of concepts explored. Together, these activities will result in greater student engagement, comprehension, and achievement.
For more information about the 5E Instructional Model, see:
- The BSCS 5E Instructional Model: Origins and Effectiveness. Biological Sciences Curriculum Study.
- The BSCS 5E Instructional Model: Creating Teachable Moments by Rodger W. Bybee. NSTA Press.
- 7-minute video on the BSCS (Biological Sciences Curriculum Study) 5E Instructional Model by Nancy P. Moreno, PhD. BioEd Online, Science Teacher Resources from Baylor College of Medicine.
The unit also follows the guidelines for best STEM practices as outlined in NGSS’s eight Science and Engineering Practices:
- Ask questions (science) and define problems (engineering).
- Develop and use models.
- Plan and carry out investigations.
- Analyze and interpret data.
- Use mathematics and computational thinking.
- Construct explanations (science) and design solutions (engineering).
- Engage in argument from evidence.
- Obtain, evaluate, and communicate information.
This Carbon & Climate Unit supports learning as a developmental progression. It is designed to help students build on and revise their knowledge and abilities, starting with their initial conceptions about the topic of climate change and helping them move toward a more scientifically based, coherent perspective on the topic.
The activities provide a number of strategies for gaining content knowledge, enabling students to integrate knowledge from library research, maps and models, and scientific investigations. The following is an overview of each activity, including the intended learner objectives.
|Pre-Assessment||Students show what they already know about the topic of carbon and climate by answering questions pertaining to it.|
|1: What is Climate?||Students explore the concept of climate as they examine global climate patterns and the relationship between temperature, precipitation, and the world’s forests.||
|2:The Carbon Cycle||Students model the movement of carbon atoms in the carbon cycle and explore the relationship between atmospheric carbon and trees.||
|3: Is It Only Natural?||Students will explore various factors that have caused climate change in the past, analyze carbon dioxide levels over time, and construct a claim about it supported with evidence and reasoning.||
|4:The Climate Time Machine||In this project-based learning activity, students explore the geologic history of a particular region of the world to see how past climatic changes have altered the landscape. Students create museum exhibits to model what earlier climate patterns can reveal about current global temperature trends.||
|5: Are You a Bigfoot?||After examining projections for different forest regions in the United States, students use a carbon footprint calculator to analyze their personal effect on carbon dioxide (CO2) levels in the atmosphere and design a solution for reducing their carbon footprint.||
|Post-Assessment||Students demonstrate what they have learned about carbon and climate by pointing out what they would teach new classmates.|
Lesson Planning Timeline and Tips
To provide ample time for this unit, PLT recommends allowing at least 15 days (or 3 weeks) of 50-minute class periods. Note that some activities can be completed in only one or two class periods, while others will take much longer.
The suggested timeline below may vary with students’ grade and previous background knowledge and experience.
|1: What is Climate?||2–3 periods (50 minutes each)|
|2: The Carbon Cycle||2–3 periods|
|3: Is It Only Natural?||3–5 periods|
|4: Climate Time Machine||5 periods (or more)|
|5: Are You a Bigfoot?||2 periods (or more)|
Here are some helpful hints for adjusting the activities as you move through the unit:
- Use your creativity to modify the unit to fit your curriculum or learning program.
- Feel free to combine activities or parts of activities.
- The most time-consuming activity is 4: Climate Time Machine, which applies project-based learning. If time is limited, consider shortening it or reserving it for another time (later in the year, for example).
- You might choose to include either 3: Is It Only Natural? or 4: Climate Time Machine (rather than both) in your planning and instruction.
Unit Organization and Navigation
This unit and its five activities are designed to be user-friendly and easy to navigate. You will find topic items related to the unit as a whole listed in the left-hand navigation bar, and tabs for individual activity components across the top.
All of the components of the unit may be found in the left-hand navigation bar. In addition to this Introduction, you will see listings of the unit’s Activities and Appendices.
- Introduction contains helpful information related to the entire unit.
- The five instructional activities, plus pre- and post-assessment activities (described in more detail below).
- Standards Connections – A chart showing where various standards are addressed in the activities.
- Additional Resources – A list of websites, videos, books, and other resources to support student learning on the topic.
- PLT Conceptual Framework – The foundation of PLT’s curriculum, recently revised to incorporate the vocabulary of current education trends and to highlight the three dimensions of sustainability (environment, society, and economy).
- Acknowledgements – A listing of the many individuals involved in creating this E-Unit.
- Technical Support – Answers and trouble-shooting ideas for technical questions.
Each of the five instructional activities contains all of the information needed to teach the lesson, including background information, standards connections, preparation instructions, material and time requirements, step-by-step instructions, student pages, assessment suggestions, and links to online resources.
Clicking on one of the activities in the left-hand navigation bar will open up that learning activity. Once the activity is opened, new tabs will appear across the top containing the following activity components.
- Includes a brief description of the activity.
- Learner Objectives: States the skills and content learners are expected to gain through participating in the activity.
- Time Considerations: Recommends the time allotments for the core activity, including preparation (see Getting Ready).
- Standards Connections: Identifies the standards the activity helps to meet.
- Materials: Lists the materials needed to do the activity.
- Getting Ready: Describes how to prepare for teaching the activity.
- Key Vocabulary: Lists and defines terms used in the activity and links to a vocabulary-focused students page that can also double as a form of assessment. Note that the definitions listed in the Overview are geared for students, while the definitions that “pop up” with the activity text online are geared for the teacher.
- Contains relevant information that provides the teacher with an understanding and perspective for engaging the class in the activity.
- While geared primarily for the teacher, may be shared with students as informational text.
- Glossary terms within the Background are highlighted: rolling over these words with your mouse will reveal their definitions. (Note that these definitions may differ somewhat from the more student-friendly ones identified in the Overview for the activity and on the Key Vocabulary student pages.)
- Discussion Questions at the end of the section may be used to engage students in the Background content.
– Doing the Activity
- Provides step-by-step procedures for leading the lesson. The procedure is divided into sections according to the 5E model: Engage, Explore, Explain, and Expand. The fifth E (Evaluate) is dedicated as its own separate section (see below).
- Specific connections to standards are highlighted: rolling over these areas with your mouse will reveal the relevant standard connection.
- Provides suggestions and materials for assessing students’ understanding of the concepts covered in the activity and provides opportunities for students to apply what they have learned.
- Includes links to relevant student pages and assessment rubrics, where appropriate.
- Recommends strategies for enriching or extending students’ learning experience beyond the activity.
- Includes copyright-free teacher and student pages used in the lesson, as well as a listing of additional resources (books, websites, and videos) that may support the activity.
Pre and Post-Assessment
- Pre-Assessment – Provides suggestions for assessing student knowledge prior to the unit.
- Post-Assessment – Offers a strategy and instrument for evaluating what students learned from the unit.
To support informal assessment and repeated content review, every activity in this unit offers a short, online, self-paced and self-scored student quiz. Quizzes consist of 5–8 multiple choice and true/false questions on important concepts related to each activity.
Quizzes offer students instant feedback on their selections. Correct answers are verified immediately, while incorrect responses offer the right answer along with further explanation. The quizzes do not require a username or password to access; simply follow the links provided. When granting students access, it is best to use the shortened, student-friendly bit.ly link listed below. If you or your students experience any difficulties accessing or using the online quizzes, please refer to the Technical Support page.
Please note that individual student quiz responses cannot be tracked. To create a more formalized assessment or to document student scores, consider using a different tool to administer the quiz. PLT’s template was designed as an informal assessment only.
Access links to the online quizzes are found on the activities’ Evaluate pages, as well as below. Please note the following bit.ly links are case sensitive.
|Activity 1||What is Climate?||http://bit.ly/WhatIsClimate|
|Activity 2||The Carbon Cycle||http://bit.ly/TheCarbonCycle|
|Activity 3||Is It Only Natural?||http://bit.ly/IsItOnlyNatural|
|Activity 4||Climate Time Machine||http://bit.ly/ClimateTimeMachine|
|Activity 5||Are You a Bigfoot?||http://bit.ly/AreYouABigfoot|
Community and Career Connections
This unit offers several opportunities to integrate community involvement and career connections, as suggested in the following activities.
- Activity 1: What Is Climate? – You might invite a local TV meteorologist – or another climate expert – to speak to your class about climate and weather, either in person or through video conferencing.
- Activity 2: The Carbon Cycle (in Getting Ready) – Consider inviting a forester or interpreter from a local state park or nature area to talk with students about the important role trees play in the carbon cycle and to help them with their tree carbon measurements and calculations.
- Activity 4: Climate Time Machine – You may wish to bring in community members to hear students’ presentations. Consider also inviting local scientists, business people, or those in other careers to talk to students about their work related to climate science or climate change. One word of caution, though: Make sure any guest speaker is lively enough to keep middle-school students engaged!
- Activity 5: Are You a Big Foot? – Consider including administrators and members of the community as students present their proposals for reducing their carbon footprints.
If you have questions, comments, or feedback regarding this unit or the website, please contact us at [email protected].