Project-Based Learning (PBL)

Taking It to the Class: Green Projects for the Classroom

Try these great lesson ideas for environmentally conscious teachers (and their lucky students).

October 2, 2007
Credit: Bart Nagel

An annual celebration of Earth Day should not be the only time during the school year when you devote significant classroom time to exploring issues of environmental awareness and stewardship. Whether you teach biology, history, or language arts, the Web is a rich and ever-growing resource, with curriculum ideas for integrating environmental issues into lesson plans. But where to begin? That will be your decision, but we'll help you get started.

We've compiled a cross section of lessons, with ideas for every grade level. Some can be completed within a single class period and others require more time, but all are sure to get your students -- and you -- thinking about what can be done to preserve our increasingly fragile planet.

Elementary School

The Life History of "Stuff"

By tracing the origins of everyday products -- the bikes they ride to school or their favorite sneakers -- students develop an understanding of the impact that the production, sale, and disposal of commonly used goods have on the environment.

Though no single lesson is likely to change students' consumption patterns completely, this one is sure to get them thinking about alternatives, like wearing shoes until they're outgrown or worn out, or donating still-usable items so they don't end up in a landfill prematurely.

Topics: Consumption, Waste Production
Teaching Level: Grades 2-3
Source: Education for Sustainable Development

Credit: Veer

From Farm to Table

Students (and adults, too) know surprisingly little about the origin of the food they eat every day. In this lesson, students compile lists of frequently eaten foods and then take a trip to the local supermarket to research their origin by analyzing food displays or speaking with the grocer.

What are the consequences of eating grapes from Chile or corn from Mexico? Are there economic or health advantages to eating locally grown fruits and vegetables? Should grocers provide origin information for the produce they sell? These are just a few of the issues students can explore in this lesson. There's also ample opportunity to extend the lesson through action, by visiting a local farmers' market and talking with growers or starting their own vegetable garden at school.

Topic: Food Sources
Teaching Level: Grades 4-6
Source: California School Garden Network

Credit: iStock

Go Fish

In this thirty-minute lesson for very young students, a simple bowl of goldfish crackers helps make concrete the concept of scarcity of resources. In the first part of the lesson, the bowl is passed around the room and students are allowed to take as many crackers as they'd like. In the second, each student receives an equal number of crackers.

The two scenarios serve as an excellent entrée into a discussion of uneven distribution of resources, as students discuss how it felt to get more (or fewer) fish than their classmates. The next step is to expand the discussion to resources in students' homes or in their community that everyone must share.

Topic: Scarcity of Resources
Grade Level: P-2
Source: Population Connection

Trip Tally: Discovering Environmental Solutions

What impact does car transportation have on the local environment? That's the key question this lesson aims to ask and answer as students conduct a simple air pollution experiment and analyze the findings in the context of their own weekly trip tally, which documents their comings and goings about town by car, foot, bike, and public transportation.

Students analyze their own travel data, as well as that of the whole class, and then explore strategies for reducing air pollution by choosing to ride their bike rather than drive, or by taking fewer trips.

Topic: Air Pollution
Teaching Level: Grades 3-6
Source: Northeast Sustainable Energy Association

Elementary and Middle School

Environmental Explorers

This lesson calls upon observation and analysis skills as students explore and then discuss the changes that have been made to the natural environment. Students observe and document natural and human features in their locale (during a walk around the neighborhood or a trip downtown, for example), and evaluate the impact of changes made by humans, such as the leveling of an area for a subdivision or the damming of a local stream or river.

As a culminating activity, students discuss local environmental and planning issues and then write letters to the local newspapers expressing their views and encouraging specific action.

Focus: Environmental Awareness
Teaching Level: Grades 3-8
Source: National Geographic Society

Credit: iStock

The Trash We Pass

A day's worth of classroom garbage becomes the basis for this lesson, which explores the amount of waste students (and their schools, families, and community) produce each day, and the impact of all this trash on the environment. Faced with the dirty truth about how much trash they accumulate, students are asked to brainstorm how to reduce their waste production (by using less, recycling more, and so on) and then to put their newfound knowledge to further use by taking action in their community.

The lesson includes ideas for extending their work beyond the classroom, pursuing activities such as researching local recycling options and advocating with city officials for improvements, or starting a compost pile at school or at home.

Topics: Consumption, Waste Production
Teaching Level: Grades 4-7
Source: Redefining Progress

We Are What We Drink

The writings of a Peace Corps volunteer from the Togolese Republic in Africa provide a developing-world context for the exploration of water consumption, water pollution, and the health of individuals and communities. Students explore their own water consumption (the amount of water used in everyday activities; the types of water -- filtered, bottled, and so on) they drink -- and compare this data with the experiences of residents in the Togolese Republic, where clean water is scarce and cholera is endemic.

Topics: Water Quality, Public Health
Teaching Level: Grades 3-8
Source: Peace Corps, Coverdell World Wise Schools

Middle and High School

Fishing for the Future

Through a simulation, students model several consecutive seasons of a fishery and explore how such variables as advances in technology, population growth, and attention to sustainable fishing practices impact fish catch and fisheries management. Over multiple "seasons," students confront the economic and environmental impact of overfishing. As the fish population is depleted in one area, for example, they must seek out sources elsewhere or explore more sustainable practices.

This engaging lesson includes thought-provoking writing and discussion prompts, and opportunities for students to extend what they've learned to their own community by exploring the status of commonly owned resources in their town or state.

Topic: Sustainability
Teaching Level: Grades 6-12
Source: Facing the Future: People and the Planet

How Big Is Your Footprint?

Using Web tools, students calculate their ecological footprints (the amount of natural resources they consume in a given year) and then, as a group, determine the footprint of the entire class. After creating graphs and finding the mean, the median, the mode, and the standard deviation for the class, students explore a range of discussion questions about reducing their footprint, their responsibility to subsequent generations, the impact of their consumption, and more.

Armed with this new knowledge and awareness, students are prompted to consider the size of their family's footprint, or that of the entire school. What steps might they each take to decrease their footprint? By taking the test again six months later, students will be able to assess the impact of their choices.

Topic: Consumption, Pollution
Teaching Level: Grades 8-12
Source: Alliance to Save Energy

High School

Water Walk

Building on the concept of a watershed, students use a field trip to a local body of water (a stream at a local park, for example) to conduct a detailed assessment of the water and surrounding land and then document their findings by mapping and profiling the water and the neighboring area.

This hands-on science lesson teaches students how to take standardized measurements of water characteristics, integrates writing activities as students describe the characteristics of the local watershed, and provides an excellent introduction to issues of water quality. There's also information about using data from, and sharing data with, the worldwide science and education program Global Learning and Observation to Benefit the Environment (GLOBE).

Topic: Water Quality
Teaching Level: Grades 9-12
Source: Center for Environmental Education Online

Whose Resource Is It?

Environmental justice is the focus of this lesson, which integrates world history, geography, and government topics into a case study and a role-playing exercise. Students explore the impact of a plan to locate a new industry in a low-income neighborhood, then take on the roles of community members, business executives, and city officials as they advocate for and against building a power plant in a low-income minority neighborhood. Together, they assess the economic, environmental, and social consequences of their decisions.

Through these activities and supplemental readings, students gain a deeper understanding of the ways socioeconomic status impacts the number and types of businesses in a neighborhood -- and the impact these businesses have on residents' health and well-being.

Focus: Environmental Justice
Teaching Level: Grades 9-12
Source: Education for a Sustainable Development

Roberta Furger is a contributing writer for Edutopia.

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