Connections in the Earth System

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Students demonstrate their knowledge of connections between natural systems and the built environment in which they live.

Learning Objectives

Students will learn that:

  • Humans depend on Earth's land, ocean, atmosphere, and biosphere for many different resources.
  • Understanding natural hazards can help forecast the locations and likelihoods of future events.
  • As human population and consumption increase, so do negative impacts on the planet.
  • Human activities can significantly alter the natural environment, but impacts can be positive as well as negative.
  • All human activity draws on natural resources and has both short- and long-term consequences, both positive and negative.
  • The uses of technologies and limitations on their use are driven by individual or societal needs, desires, and values; by the findings of scientific research; and by differences in such factors as climate, natural resources, and economic conditions.


  • (32 cards provided along with a blank sheet of cards)
  • Eight sheets of yellow paper cut in half (or index cards)
  • Eight sheets of green paper cut in half (or index cards)
  • A marker
  • Ball of yarn rolled into a ball
  • Discussion props (optional) -2 glasses of water, one from the tap and the other from a natural water source such as a lake or stream


  • Roll one skein of yarn into a ball for a class of approximately 25 students in advance of playing the activity with students.
  • On each piece of yellow paper, write one of the following terms: Coastal Development, Population Growth, Economy, Industry/Utilities, Engineering, Education, Human Heath, City Planning, Human Services, Science, Technology, Taxes, Media, Governance, Consumption, Transportation
  • On each piece of green paper, write one of the following terms: Hurricane Storm Surge, Water/Watershed, Soil, Sea Level, Renewable Energy, Natural Resources, Climate, Weather, Non-Renewable Energy, Land, Conflict, Fire, Atmosphere, Food, Life & Death, Biosphere
  • Feel free to add terms on additional pieces of paper. Include student suggestions whenever possible.


  1. Introduce the Activity: Explain that what people do can affect the world around them, but that they can make choices that reduce their impacts on the land, water, air, and other living and/or natural systems. If time allows, ask the students to write about some of the connections that come to mind in terms of natural systems and the human or built environment around them. Ask students to think of ways that humans influence their environment (streets, houses, laws, utilities...). Explain to them that the activity involves drawing connections between the built environment and natural systems and that connections will become clearer as the activity progresses.
  2. Ask the students to take one of the Nature and Built Environment Cards. With larger groups, ask students to pair and share a card. You might also want to conduct the activity in a large indoor or outdoor space if classroom space is limited or cluttered.
  3. Ask the students or pairs to next form two rows about 8 feet apart according to the color of their card, a yellow row, and a green row. Have students in the two rows face one another.
  4. Start the activity by asking one student to begin by reading his/her Nature and Built Environment Card aloud. The first card reader also holds on to the end of the ball of yarn for the remainder of the activity and tosses the ball of yarn to someone in the opposite row after his/her card has been read.
  5. The new student now with the ball of yarn thinks about any connection between his/her word and the one read moments before. He or she shares the connection between the words with the class.
  6. Once a connection between the words on the two opposite colored cards is made, the student who made the connection holds on to a piece of string from the ball of yarn then throws it gently to a classmate in the opposite row (with an opposite-colored card also). The person who catches the ball of yarn then makes a connection between his/her word and the one last read as done prior.
  7. Continue in this manner until all students have had a turn to catch the ball of yarn and make a connection between their word and the word read prior. The last throw of the ball of yarn should end with the person who began the game, and he/she will make the last connection. If you have an odd number of students, one person may have to go twice.
  8. The yarn should now resemble a web composed of a series of connections.
  9. Tug on the yarn and ask if students feel the connection among all the initiation points? End the activity by stressing the interconnections of the natural world and the built environments that comprise the towns, cities, states, and countries in which we live our lives. Stress their connections and how we can strengthen the latter by knowing as much as we can about the former and its impact in all areas of our lives.
  10. End the activity with a discussion of why knowing interconnections has value. How can these connections help us understand, prepare for, and/or avoid potential problems? Reiterate the importance of knowing human's impact on natural systems - for both good and bad - stressing that we can make choices that reduce impacts on the natural world and simultaneously benefit society.

Reflection and Assessment

Ask the students to think about how the natural environment can be impacted by human systems and the built environment, and vice versa. Have pairs, small groups, or individual students study the connection between one randomly chosen yellow card (representing the built environment) and one randomly chosen green card (representing the natural environment). Have students share their research with the class using one of a handful of presentation platforms (video, music, PowerPoint presentation, artwork...). Ask students to site their research sources.

One extra blank sheet with yellow and green cards is provided for adding new terms as desired.

Finally, ask students to reflect on science in their own lives in their science journals. How does science enhance or negatively impact their daily experiences? How might they help to bring about change and take positive actions to improve negative conditions for one's self or others?


Green cityscape environment

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If you have more than 32 students, have students "share and pair" cards or use a card in the deck more than once.

Other topics that can be researched on the connection between science and society include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • biodiversity, invasive species
  • climate change or one of its many sub-issues such as greenhouse gases or impacts on human health
  • renewable and non-renewable energy
  • sustainability and/or sustainable development
  • food
  • consumption and waste
  • science and the media