Lessons and Activities about Exploration

Including a unit on polar explorers in your curriculum can do much more than engage students with a fascinating subject and meet social studies standards. You can incorporate discussions of technology, both past and present, and scientific principles such as astronomy, ecosystems, and environmental change. The study of explorers is also based on literacy skills – reading, writing, and discussion all naturally align with this type of unit. Finally, lessons might also target the History and Nature of Science content standard of the National Science Education Standards as many explorers also made detailed observations of the environment and conducted scientific studies while traveling or after returning from an expedition.

In this article, we’ve highlighted lessons and activities about exploration in general as well as polar explorers. We’ve identified resources that go beyond the traditional research assignment, such as creating a scrapbook, a papier-mache map of an expedition, or an explorer’s tool kit. A little creative thinking will go a long way in terms of engaging students and incorporating higher-order thinking skills into the unit. Some other ideas for enhancing your study of explorers:

  • Compare and contrast two expeditions (historic and modern-day, in different locations) orally, using a graphic organizer, or in writing.
  • Create a video re-enacting an expedition or a significant discovery.
  • Conduct a mock interview of an explorer – as a skit, video, podcast, or newspaper or magazine article.
  • Discuss how the success of an expedition should be evaluated. Many expeditions failed to meet their initial goal, but made unexpected, yet significant, discoveries along the way. Should these expeditions be considered successful? Why or why not?

Do you have another idea for teaching about explorers? Share it with us by leaving a comment below!


EXPLORATION (GENERAL)

Be An Explorer Every Day! (Grades K-5)
Students make an exploration tool kit to explore their local surroundings. A great way to introduce or supplement lessons on historical exploration. This activity meets the following National Geography Standard: Standard 8: The characteristics and spatial distribution of ecosystems on Earth’s surface.

Lessons of the Explorers (Grades 2-5)
This article from the Education World web site takes students beyond simple biographies by asking them to consider personal characteristics of explorers and decide which explorers they most and least admire. Not a lesson in and of itself, but ideas to revise and supplement existing lessons.

Cyberspace Explorer: Getting to Know Christopher Columbus (Grades 3-5)
This lesson supports third- through fifth-grade students’ exploration of multiple online sources to gather information about the life of a well-known explorer, Christopher Columbus. After completing a cyber-scavenger hunt, students use their notes to prepare a timeline and summary report. Extension activities promote critical literacy by exposing students to Columbus from the perspective of the Native American and by engaging them in a discussion of point of view. The online activity used in this lesson can easily be adapted to study polar explorers. This lesson meets the following NCTE/IRA Standards: 1, 2, 5, 8.


POLAR EXPLORATION

Brrr! Expeditions to the North and South Poles (Grades 3-5)
The purpose of this lesson is to acquaint students with the first successful explorations of the North and South Poles through a study of the four men who led them. Students will present their research on posters or with PowerPoint presentations. Note: This lesson is modified from the Polar Expeditions lesson for grades 6-8.

This lesson plan addresses the following standards from the National Council for the Social Studies:

  • II. Time, Continuity, and Change
  • III. People, Places, and Environments
  • VIII. Science, Technology, and Society
  • IX. Global Connections

Polar Explorer Activity (Grades 2-5)
Students research an explorer and create a “dangling string” (similar to a mobile) with key information and highlights from the expeditions of that explorer.

This lesson plan addresses the following standards from the National Council for the Social Studies:

  • II. Time, Continuity, and Change
  • III. People, Places, and Environments
  • IV. Individual Development and Identity
  • VIII. Science, Technology, and Society
  • IX. Global Connections

Polar Expeditions (Grades 6-8; modify for Grades 3-5)
Students learn about the polar expeditions of the early 1900s, research a single polar explorer, and create a scrapbook documenting the expedition. While the lesson was written for students in the middle grades, it could easily be modified for upper-elementary students by substituting appropriate web sites (Enchanted Learning has Arctic and Antarctic explorer pages) and children’s literature (see our bookshelf for suggestions).

This lesson plan addresses the following standards from the National Council for the Social Studies:

  • II. Time, Continuity, and Change
  • III. People, Places, and Environments
  • IV. Individual Development and Identity
  • VIII. Science, Technology, and Society
  • IX. Global Connections

To The Ends of the Earth: Research in Polar Seas (Grades 6-8; modify for Grades 3-5)
In this lesson, students will learn about famous explorers of the polar regions and create a log of their own simulated journey to the Arctic or Antarctica. While the lesson was written for students in the middle grades, it could easily be modified for upper-elementary students by substituting appropriate web sites (Enchanted Learning has Arctic and Antarctic explorer pages) and children’s literature (see our bookshelf for suggestions).

This lesson addresses the following National Geography Standards:

  • Standard 1: How to use maps and other geographic representations, tools, and technologies to acquire, process, and report information from a spatial perspective
  • Standard 8: The characteristics and spatial distribution of ecosystems on Earth’s surface

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

Copyright February 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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