Exploring Environmental Change

Overview and Objectives


Earth's environment is always changing, from both natural cycles and as the byproduct of certain events or influences, including human activity. To help students understand environmental change on a global scale, this lesson leads them to first understand environmental relationships on a smaller scale. Students begin by discussing a familiar local environment and thinking about the different interrelationships that exist there. Next, they begin to think about how change affects an environment. They look closely at historical changes in one particular environment — the northern coast of Alaska. They also examine how recent environmental changes are affecting the residents of Barrow, Alaska, and how these changes may ultimately affect the global community. Students conclude by researching local environmental changes and thinking about what these changes might imply for the future.


  • Explore a familiar local environment and understand the connections in that environment
  • Examine the Arctic region as a case study in how natural and human-caused factors are currently changing an environment, and what these changes mean for the global community
  • Explore whaling in the Arctic region as a case study in historical environmental change and how such changes are studied
  • Research how human activity is causing local environmental changes and consider what these changes imply for the future


Planning and Materials

Planning and Materials

Grade Level: 6-9

Suggested Time

  • Two to three class periods (with additional out-of-class time for the Check for Understanding activity)

Multimedia Resources


Before the Lesson

  • If possible, arrange computer access so students can work in pairs or small groups.
  • Print and copy PDF documents for each student.
  • Prepare a list of environmental changes that were brought on by human activity in your local region that students can research for their final project. If possible, focus on changes that had noticeable and/or measurable effects. For example, students could look at how the introduction of a human-made structure, such as a dam or shopping plaza, into a natural environment has affected that environment.

Part I: Looking at Your Environment

Part I: Looking at Your Environment

1. Tell students that this lesson will look at some of the connections that can exist in an environment, and how changes to the environment can affect those connections. Begin by asking students to think about a familiar local environment. You might have them look specifically at the area in which the school is located, or a larger area with more features. If possible, have students walk around the schoolyard or look out of a window to make their observations. Ask students to take notes about everything they see, such as animals, plants, people, soil, water, climate, and human-built objects. You may also want to give students the Observing Your Environment Worksheet PDF Document so they can take notes while they observe or think about a specific environment.

2. Bring the class together to discuss what everyone noted about the environment. On a piece of chart paper, write down some of the students' key observations. Post the completed list in the classroom for reference.

3. Tell students that they will now consider how the plants, animals, and physical factors they observed in their environment are connected. Begin by looking at an example together as a class. On a new piece of chart paper, lead students to identify one connection between two things from their list of observations. You may want to draw a diagram to help students visualize the connection. For example, you could write "squirrel" on the right side of the paper and "tree" on the left, then draw a line between them. On the line, write "squirrel uses tree for shelter and food." Then pass out a poster board and set of markers to each group. Have students meet in their small groups to identify more connections that they observed in their environment. Each group should pick two items that are connected from their list of observations and describe that connection on a poster. They can draw a diagram or other picture to help explain the connection. When everyone is finished, have the groups display their posters around the room. Then ask students to take a quick walk around to see the connections that everyone else found.

4. Select one of the connections described on a poster, and lead the class in a discussion about what would happen if one of the two things that were connected were removed from the environment. How would that affect the other thing in the connection? What would happen to the rest of the environment?

Part II: Looking at Coastal Environments

Part II: Looking at Coastal Environments

5. Let students know that they will be seeing a video that shows examples of a Pacific Northwest cold-water environment, a New England coastal environment, and a Hawaiian tropical environment. Divide the class into groups of three or four students and assign each group one of these coastal environments. [Depending on the size of your class, you may end up having several groups assigned to the same region.]

Before showing the video, brainstorm with students the types of things they should observe and record to illustrate a particular environment (animals, plants, soil, water, food sources, shelter, other structures, and interrelationships, for example). Encourage them to think about what they were looking for when they observed their own environment. Write these categories on the board or on another piece of chart paper. Then show the Living on the Coast video. Ask students to take notes about the things they see for their assigned coastal environment.

6. Pass out another poster board to each group. Have students find two or three examples of connections in their assigned environment based on what they observed in the video and what they already know about this particular environment. If time permits, students can do additional research as needed using the Internet or reference books. When they finish, have the groups present to the rest of the class so that everyone can see examples from all three environments.

Part III: Case Study: Changes in an Arctic Environment

Part III: Case Study: Changes in an Arctic Environment

7. Environments change over time. Some changes are seasonal (shifts in animal populations) or natural (volcanic eruptions). Other changes are the result of human activity. In this case study, we will focus on one example of how human activity has affected a local environment. The Bowhead Whaling and Its Impact Flash Interactive illustrates a very specific change that happened in the Bering, Chukchi, and Beaufort seas that surround Alaska: the introduction of commercial whaling. The study by researchers John Bockstoce and Daniel Botkin is based on a sample of actual journals and logbooks kept by commercial whalers. Show students the slideshow and distribute the Bockstoce Study Chart PDF Document. Discuss with students how the commercial whaling industry affected whale populations in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. What effect do you think this had on the Iñupiaq people who hunted the whales to meet their needs? What other animals might have taken the place of the whale in Iñupiaq life?

8. Tell students that they will now look at the present-day environment in this Alaskan region. Begin by having students find Barrow, Alaska, on a map. Then show the Iñupiaq Whale Hunt video and have students read the background essay. Have the students form small groups again, and ask them to discuss the following questions.

   a. What does whaling provide to the people of Barrow today? In what ways are Iñupiaq people dependent on the whale?
   b. How might changes to the whale population affect these communities?

9. The Bockstoce study analyzed changes that happened in the past. How would we learn about environmental changes happening in Barrow, Alaska, today? Show students the Arctic Climate Perspectives video. Then, discuss the following questions:

   a. What changes have the Iñupiaq people observed in their environment?
   b. What is the benefit of multiple ources of data? For example, observational data and data gathered using tools (e.g., satellite images) — when looking at environmental change? How do the Iñupiaq people's observations and historical regional knowledge work together with the data and analyses developed by the visiting scientists?
   c. Barrow, Alaska, and other Arctic regions may seem far removed from where you live. How is the information about environmental change in Barrow relevant to your local environment? What might the changes in Barrow mean for the rest of the world?

Have students end by reading the Arctic Climate Perspectives video background essay to help them synthesize their thoughts about Arctic climate change and what it means to them.

Check for Understanding

Check for Understanding

Have students work together in their groups for a final project. Assign each group one of the local environmental changes brought on by human activity that you have already identified. The students' task is to conduct their own research on this environmental change and its implications for the future. Students should repeat the process they used when they analyzed their own local environment and the video environments. They can begin by observing and describing the environment, and then look at the connections that exist in this environment. Next, they should extend their research to look at the change in this environment brought on by human activity and determine what effect (positive or negative) the activity is having on the plants, animals, and physical elements.

To learn more about this environment and the change that it is experiencing, suggest that students conduct additional research by consulting the Web or local newspapers, and talking with local residents and environmental organizations familiar with the region. Students should summarize their findings in a letter to their school or local newspaper. The summary should include an explanation of the environmental changes that they have observed, what these changes imply for the future, and what, if anything, students recommend should be done about these changes.

If it is not possible for students to analyze an environmental change related to human activity in your local community, suggest another region that students can research.