Lessons and Activities to Build the Foundations for Climate Literacy

While climate change is not explicitly addressed in the elementary science standards and curricula, many of its foundational concepts are. Elementary teachers looking to ensure that their students have the proper foundation to learn about climate science in middle school and beyond can turn to the document Climate Literacy: The Essential Principles of Climate Sciences for guidance. It defines seven broad concepts, many of which can be linked back to the elementary curriculum in some manner:

Seven Essential Principles of Climate Literacy

  1. The Sun is the primary source of energy for Earth’s climate system.
  2. Climate is regulated by complex interactions among components of the Earth system.
  3. Life on Earth depends on, is shaped by, and affects climate.
  4. Climate varies over space and time through both natural and man-made processes.
  5. Our understanding of the climate system is improved through observations, theoretical studies, and modeling.
  6. Human activities are impacting the climate system.
  7. Climate change will have consequences for the Earth system and human lives.

As the seven principles indicate, climate science encompasses concepts from physical, life, and earth and space sciences as well as science and technology and the history and nature of science. In the elementary grades, students can begin constructing a basic understanding of seasonal changes, biomes and ecosystems, the water cycle, and the role of solar energy in heating Earth’s atmosphere, land, and water. These concepts, along with knowledge about weather and climate, will prepare students for the more complex principles that will be introduced in later years. Teachers of upper-elementary students may want to introduce climate change at a very basic level, and focus mainly on simple actions that students (and their families) can take to reduce their carbon footprint.

In this article, we’ve highlighted lessons and activities that help elementary students develop an understanding of weather phenomena, identify weather patterns, and compare and contrast weather around the world. Older students begin to differentiate between weather and climate. We’ve also included age-appropriate resources for introducing climate change and activities that promote environmental responsibility.

Finally, we’ve aligned each lesson to the appropriate national standards – National Science Education Standards and the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE)/International Reading Association (IRA) Standards for the English Language Arts. The entire National Science Education Standards document can be read online or downloaded for free from the National Academies Press web site. The content standards are found in Chapter 6. The NCTE/IRA Standards may be viewed online as well.


WEATHER AND WEATHER PATTERNS

Weather 1: Weather Patterns (Grades K-2)
This lesson is the first in a two-part series on the weather. In this lesson, students keep daily records of temperature, precipitation, and wind. They plot their data and look for patterns of ups and downs without getting deeply into the nature of climate. This lesson meets the Science as Inquiry and Earth and Space Science content standards for grades K-4 of the National Science Education Standards.

Weather 2: What’s the Season? (Grades K-2)
This lesson is the second in a two-part series on the weather. Students identify the seasonal patterns in temperature and precipitation. This lesson meets the Science as Inquiry and Earth and Space Science content standards for grades K-4 of the National Science Education Standards.

To integrate literacy into these two lessons, try using science notebooks:

Science Notebooks: Integrating Investigations (Grades K-5)
This article provides an overview of science notebooks. Using science notebooks can meet NCTE/IRA Standards 4, 5, 6, 7, 9, 10, 11, 12.

Weather Stations: Teaching the Science and Technology Standard (Grades K-5)
This article from the Weather and Climate issue of Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears provides resources that help teachers create classroom or school weather stations. Creating a weather station can meet the Science as Inquiry, Earth and Space Science, and Science and Technology content standards of the National Science Education Standards.

To integrate literacy into activities with weather stations, try incorporating field journals or science notebooks:

How Does My Garden Grow? Writing in Science Field Journals (Grades K-2)
This lesson involves students in recording observations in a field journal. While the lesson intends for students to keep a journal about a class garden, similar journals could be used for other activities. This lesson meets NCTE/IRA Standards 1, 3, 5, 6, 7, 8, 11, 12.

Science Notebooks: Integrating Investigations (Grades K-5)
This article provides an overview of science notebooks. Using science notebooks can meet NCTE/IRA Standards 4, 5, 6, 7, 9, 10, 11, 12.

Weather Scope (Grades 3-5)

In this project, students observe and track weather in their hometown and two additional locations to learn about weather, factors influencing weather and climate, and weather forecasting.

This lesson meets the following content standards of the National Science Education Standards: Science as Inquiry, Earth and Space Science, and Science and Technology.

To further integrate literacy skills into this lesson, try:

All About Our Town: Using Brochures to Teach Informational Writing (Grades 3-5)
This lesson teaches students about informational writing through brochures. The lesson could be modified so that students create their own brochures about the weather and climate of an area they’ve been tracking. This lesson meets NCTE/IRA Standards 4, 5, 7, 8, 12.

Creative Climates (Grades K-5)
This activity involves creating a climate map to illustrate the world’s different climate zones. Modifications and literacy integrations are provided for younger and older students. This lesson meets the Earth and Space Science and the Science in Personal and Social Perspectives content standards of the National Science Education Standards.


Climate Change

Project Budburst (Grades K-5)
In this citizen science project, students record and share observations of first leaves, flowers, or fruit of plants in their area. The web site includes a set of educator resources as well as the ability to browse results via a Google map. Analyzing data will help students understand how a changing climate affects plant life. The activities involved in this project meet the Science as Inquiry and Life Science content standards of the National Science Education Standards.

Climate Connections: Making Sense of Seasonal Observations (Grades 4-5)
This feature from Journey North asks students to think like scientists as they study Earth’s changing climate and its impact on living things. Students might observe seasonal changes, analyze historic data from the Journey North program, explore weather and climate maps, and read about Earth’s changing climate. The activities in this feature may target a wide range of standards, including the Science as Inquiry content standard of the National Science Education Standards.

To integrate literacy into these activities, try field journals or science notebooks:

How Does My Garden Grow? Writing in Science Field Journals (Grades K-2)
This lesson involves students in recording observations in a field journal. While the lesson intends for students to keep a journal about a class garden, similar journals could be used for other project activities. This lesson meets NCTE/IRA Standards 1, 3, 5, 6, 7, 8, 11, 12.

Science Notebooks: Integrating Investigations (Grades K-5)
This article provides an overview of science notebooks. Using science notebooks can meet NCTE/IRA Standards 4, 5, 6, 7, 9, 10, 11, 12.

Modeling the Greenhouse Effect (Grades 3-5)
In this lesson students will model the greenhouse effect and draw conclusions about global warming. This lesson meets the Science in Personal and Social Perspectives Content Standard of the National Science Education Standards. 

To integrate literacy skills into these lessons, try the following:

Creating Question and Answer Books through Guided Research (Grades K-2, modify for Grades 3-5)
As students investigate a topic (the sun and its energy), they use nonfiction texts and the Internet to generate questions and gather information. Students use KWL charts and interactive writing to organize their information. Periodic reviews of gathered information become the backdrop to ongoing inquiry, discussion, reporting, and confirming information. The lesson culminates with the publishing of a collaborative question-and-answer book, which reports on information about the chosen topic, with each student contributing one page to the book. While this lesson appears in ReadWriteThink’s K-2 grade band, it can be easily modified for use with upper-elementary students. This lesson meets NCTE/IRA Standards 1, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 11, 12.

People Changing the Atmosphere (Grades 4-5)
By keeping a “CO2 Journal,” students establish the connection between human activity and global warming, while simultaneously discovering what they can do to reduce global warming. This lesson meets the Science in Personal and Social Perspectives Content Standard of the National Science Education Standards.

To further integrate literacy skills into this lesson, try:

Sing! Sing a Song! (Grades 3-5)
After learning about climate change, students work in small groups to write, sing, and make a recording of a song. This lesson meets NCTE/IRA Standards 4, 5, 6, 11, 12.


GREEN ACTIVITIES (ENVIRONMENTAL RESPONSIBILITY)

Be Energy Wise! (Grades K-2)
In this lesson students learn how electricity comes into their homes and what household appliances and devices use electricity. They create reminders and posters to help their families remember to turn off lights and reduce hot water use.

This lesson meets the Science in Personal and Social Perspectives Content Standard of the National Science Education Standards.

To further integrate literacy skills into this lesson, try:

Teaching Audience Through Interactive Writing (Grades K-2)
This lesson supports students in learning about audience through interactive writing. This lesson meets NCTE/IRA Standards 4, 5, 6, 11, 12.

Taking Action: Energy Efficiency at Home and at School (Grades K-5)
This article from the Energy and the Polar Environment issue of Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears discusses ways that students can participate in making their schools and homes more energy efficient. These activities meet the Science in Personal and Social Perspectives Content Standard of the National Science Education Standards.

True Green Kids: 100 Things You Can Do to Save the Planet (Grades 3-5)
This is a three-day lesson linked to ideas in the award-winning, children’s environmental science book True Green Kids: 100 Things You Can Do to Save the Planet by Kim McCay and Jenny Bonnin (National Geographic, 2008). Students work in teams – Green Corps – to give recyclable items new uses. At the end, they create posters of their creations and display the posters on all sides of a large box – such as the kind that institutional lots of toilet paper rolls come in – to create the Green Corps Kiosk for prominent display in the class or school. This lesson meets the Science in Personal and Social Perspectives Content Standard of the National Science Education Standards.


This article was written by Jessica Fries-Gaither. For more information, see the Contributors page. Email Jessica at beyondpenguins@msteacher.org.

Copyright June 2010 – The Ohio State University. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0733024. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. This work is licensed under an Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported Creative Commons license.

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