How do scientists research questions about Earth and space science using direct and indirect measures and scientific models?
This unit sets the stage for a full year high school course on Earth Systems Science. It introduces some of the major conceptual themes of Earth Systems Science, while developing an awareness of the special relevance of Earth Systems Science in today’s world. The unit focuses on how science is conducted in the Earth sciences through professional fields. The learning objectives include these:
Begin to understand the distinction between direct and indirect measures as it pertains to research in Earth Systems Science.
Begin to understand the use of scientific models and spatial data in the professional fields of Earth Systems Science.
Use the Earth Systems Science concept to understand natural features and phenomena as well as interactions between humans and the Earth systems.
In a simple example, trace the movement and transformation of matter and energy through the four key earth systems (geosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere and biosphere).
Recognize that the plate tectonic theory is the central organizing theory for the field of geology.
- What do we understand about historic and modern patterns of climate change?
- How do scientists research climate change?
- How are natural systems responding to global warming?
earth systems science
spatial and numeric data
cause and effect
How does Earth's internal energy and energy from the Sun drive processes on Earth?
This unit allows students to trace the methods through which cosmologists develop models of the universe, galaxies, solar systems, and planets like Earth. First, students use models of the Milky Way galaxy to understand the position and motion of our solar system within it. They use simulations to understand the evidence used to study the structure and processes in the universe including evidence that supports the Big Bang theory. Students study nuclear fusion as it occurs within stars. They research how fusion creates energy and other elements, and relate that production to the composition of matter on Earth and the transference of solar energy to Earth. Students develop an understanding of how matter and energy in the universe directly affect Earth systems, including the nature of solar wind, solar flares and sunspot cycles. They relate their understanding of solar activities to phenomena on Earth.
- What evidence and experimental methods help us understand the structure and origin of the universe?
- How does the formation of Earth relate to the formation of our galaxy?
- What is the origin of the energy that powers stars and reaches Earth?
- How are elements and energy produced by stars?
Big Bang Theory
earth systems science
Milky Way Galaxy
origin of our solar system
transformation of elements
How does the distribution and movement of thermal energy drive weather processes and regional climate?
In this unit students explore Earth’s weather and climate with emphasis on the transfer of energy from the sun to Earth (atmosphere, hydrosphere, lithosphere). They recognize that solar energy penetrates Earth’s atmosphere, is absorbed by Earth materials and in part transformed and reradiated into heat energy. Much of the reradiated heat is trapped in Earth’s atmosphere by a natural greenhouse effect. Students quantify and analyze variations in solar energy at different latitudes using models that depict variations by latitude throughout seasons and determined by the changing tilt of the Earth. Students map global prevailing wind patterns that result from convection in the atmosphere and the Coriolis effect. Students explain regional climatic data depicting patterns resulting in part from surface and deep ocean currents which are driven by prevailing winds and influenced by factors such as shapes of ocean basins and variations in salinity. Regional climatic patterns greatly influence seasonal weather. Students research, model, and monitor conditions that lead to severe weather nationally and determine strategies to minimize risk to humans. An understanding of global climate and data analysis will be the foundation for the following unit on global climate change.
- How does energy move through earth systems in regards to climate?
- How do prevailing winds, oceans, and geographic factors control regional climates?
- How do regions vary in regard to their vulnerability to severe weather?
Cause and effect
How do scientists monitor changes in Earth systems over time?
In this unit students investigate areas of research and methods used by scientists who are trying to understand climate change. Students develop an understanding of the fundamental science related to global climate change, starting with an analysis of the relative impact of key greenhouse gases. They analyze long-term trends in average global temperature and the history of changing carbon dioxide emissions in the Industrial Era. They then consider the observed and projected chain of effects from global warming such as the many responses to warming oceans and melting polar ice. Students explore how scientists build models that trace and quantify the movement and transference of matter and energy throughout Earth systems. These models depict positive and negative feedbacks that may accentuate or suppress consequences or climatic trends. Research of Earth’s past climates contributes to the design of climate models. Student predictions and strategies will make use of simple climatic models and pale o-climatic research. Students apply their understanding by proposing strategies that citizens of the Great Lakes watershed can pursue to prepare to minimize the impact and prepare for the consequences of climate change.
- What are the causes and effects of the mobilization of stored (e.g., carbon sinks) compounds that can become greenhouse gases?
- How have natural mechanisms that determine global climatic trends been affected by human (industrialized and agricultural) enterprises?
- How is an Earth systems science perspective useful in the study of Earth's climate?
- What strategies could minimize the impact of predicted global climatic changes?
greenhouse gas concentration
greenhouse gas emissions
greenhouse gas heat trapping capacity
greenhouse gas sequestration
Cause and Effect
How does an understanding of the processes of Earth systems help humans reduce risk to natural hazards and minimize our environmental impact?
Students explore varieties of rocks which illustrate the rock cycle, and learn how exposures of crustal igneous rocks can provide clues to Earth’s interior. They also examine data from recorded seismic waves, which can provide evidence on the structure and materials of the Earth’s interior. Students build models of Earth’s interior matching them to the known distribution of seismic wave types mapped on the Earth’s surface. Students analyze the strengths and weaknesses of the leading models of mantle convection as it relates to plate motion and develop an understanding that plate tectonics is the central organizing theory of geology. They follow the example of 20th Century scientists as they analyze and describe the global distribution patterns and characteristics of earthquakes, volcanoes, ocean crust and continental mountain ranges to understand the progression of ideas and discoveries that led to the formation of the plate tectonic theory. Students hypothesize plate boundary type from an analysis of earthquake and volcano characteristics and patterns and use the rules of logic and techniques that address one of the central purposes of geologic inquiry: to discern Earth history. They comprehend and apply stratigraphic and relative age dating principles (original horizontality, superposition, cross-cutting relationships, inclusions) to infer a sequence of events in geology history. They use index fossils to bracket ages and correlate rock layers. Students understand the atomic processes that allow radiometric isotopes to be used to discern absolute ages. They apply absolute age dating techniques in combination with relative age dating techniques to discern the sequence of geologic events. Students also use rate-time-distance equations to calculate average rates of plate motion of geologic features offset or moved by plate motion.
- How has the nature of seismic waves been used to build models of the interior of the Earth?
- How do the strengths and limitations of mantle convection models compare in regard to their ability to explain plate motion?
- How do patterns of geologic data help us categorize plate boundary types?
- What sequence of events can be determined by or used to explain geologic cross sections and maps?
age dating techniques
layers and structure of earth
mantle convection and driving force
plate boundary types
plate tectonics theory
relative plate motion
sea floor spreading
Cause and effect
How can research on natural processes of Earth systems allow scientists to better understand and make predictions on environmental impact?
In this unit students research the science and various strategies related to efforts to reduce societal risk from geologic hazards. The unit proceeds in two stages. First, a whole class analysis is conducted by examining the risk of river or deltaic flooding. River system forms and processes are explored in order to understand the origin of flooding reoccurrence intervals and the environmental impact of development and engineering efforts. Any of the Mississippi watershed flooding events of the past two decades would be excellent case studies, as would the impact of Hurricane Katrina on the Mississippi delta and gulf coast region. In a more independent stage of the unit, teams research another natural hazard that requires some level of intervention. Students explore and describe the professions of individuals who contribute to research on geologic hazards, risk assessment and policy implementation. Student teams create and/or evaluate proposals with regard to geologic processes, economic, societal and environmental trade-offs and the degree of risk reduction to humans. They present their findings and conclusions in a short report or high quality science poster. Products are subject to in-class peer review that is modeled after practices utilized in science professions. Appropriate risks would include: earthquakes, volcanoes, coastal erosion, slope stability, tsunamis.
- How should scientific understandings inform decisions on policies that mitigate risks to natural hazards?
- What human actions would reduce risk to river or deltaic flooding?
- How can society minimize loss from earthquakes and volcanoes?
- How can the methods used by engineers, architects, and government agencies help reduce risk from geo-hazards?
earth science careers
earthquake reoccurrence interval
flood reoccurrence interval
volcanic processes and forms
How does protecting the human interests of health, safety, and resource management require research and depend upon monitoring changes to Earth systems?
Students explore the nature of water resources in several regards. They analyze the relative quantities and interconnectedness of the major elements of the hydrosphere (e.g., oceans, terrestrial surface water and ground water) and evaluate the sustainability of water resources from data on human water consumption. Students measure and analyze water quality parameters (e.g., dissolved oxygen, temperature, turbidity, nitrates or macroinvertibrates) and evaluate water quality and relate findings to land use practices. Using satellite and other geographic data, students examine areas where the availability of fresh water might have serious impact on human health and safety. Finally, students propose solutions to problems related to sustainability or water quality.
- What are the similarities and differences of the components of the hydrosphere?
- How have land use practices in your watershed affected stream water quality?
Cause and effect
How can understanding resource use help us identify sustainable, low impact strategies for the future?
In this capstone unit, students draw upon concepts from the whole course in an exploration of the science behind one of the most pressing challenges of our age: securing sustainable sources of energy and other resources while minimizing detrimental consequences of human consumption. Students begin by analyzing data on U.S. and world resource consumption and compare trends with projected demand. This analysis should include various forms of petroleum, lumber and strategic minerals. They evaluate the sources of data for reliability and scientific methods. Using an Earth systems science perspective, they develop understandings about how energy from wind, the sun, tidal and geothermal sources may be harnessed for human needs. Students explore the basic geology of petroleum formation and be aware of the major global sources of oil. The whole class research current issues related to resources, energy and the environment in order to generate a class set of debatable questions on proposed strategies. A list of relevant issues may include: the planned Cr-Ni mine in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, strategies to use alternative energy sources for power generation, incentives to develop various energy industries (nuclear, wind, solar, bio-fuels, coals, hydroelectric), expanded domestic drilling for petroleum, transportation systems and fuels. With a class list of questions, students form teams that take a position on debatable questions. Each team debates an opponent team who has taken the opposing view. Teams research the issues and formulate arguments based on the depth and accuracy of the related science, the logic of their argument and an analysis of the benefits, risks and trade-offs. Environmental impacts are described using an Earth systems science perspective. After each debate, the teams receive feed back from the class audience and a rubric. A whole class discussion focuses on realistic, sustainable solutions based on the facts of the science, models that predict the benefits along with descriptions of potential trade-offs.
- What are the limitations of Earth's resources?
- How does our energy use impact the environment?
- What energy solutions are scientifically promising?
- What trade-offs must be made to achieve sustainable levels of use?
science and society