Unit Plan :Change and Earth's History-Clues to Past Environments

Susan Cone, 6th grade science, Pine Ridge Middle School
Type Category
Instructional Materials
Interactive Simulation , Model , Simulation , Unit , Activity , Demonstration , Experiment/Lab Activity , Instructor Guide/Manual
This resource, vetted by NSTA curators, is provided to teachers along with suggested modifications to make it more in line with the vision of the NGSS. While not considered to be “fully aligned,” the resources and expert recommendations provide teachers with concrete examples and expert guidance using the EQuIP rubric to adapted existing resources. Read more here.


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Clues to Past Environments is a three day lesson culminating with a kinesthetic activity. It is part of a larger unit plan Change and Earth’s History. The three day lesson is organized with specific details including a teacher’s guide. This includes an overview and background information. Three additional appendices include lecture notes, a student lab page, teacher “core sample”with photos and a detailed description of the kinesthetic activity. In the kinesthetic activity small groups of students will create “core samples”.Collaborating within their small group, each student will draw a corresponding stratigraphic column, which will include interpretation of the paleoenvironments represented with possible explanations of why the environments changed. Given stratigraphic columns, other groups will try to match cores with columns. An assessment activity is not specifically designed but a core/drawing matching activity and a class presentation of the core sample could be an assessment.

Intended Audience

Educational Level
  • Grade 8
  • Grade 7
  • Grade 6
  • Middle School
Access Restrictions

Free access - The right to view and/or download material without financial, registration, or excessive advertising barriers.

Performance Expectations

MS-ESS2-2 Construct an explanation based on evidence for how geoscience processes have changed Earth's surface at varying time and spatial scales.

Clarification Statement: Emphasis is on how processes change Earth’s surface at time and spatial scales that can be large (such as slow plate motions or the uplift of large mountain ranges) or small (such as rapid landslides or microscopic geochemical reactions), and how many geoscience processes (such as earthquakes, volcanoes, and meteor impacts) usually behave gradually but are punctuated by catastrophic events. Examples of geoscience processes include surface weathering and deposition by the movements of water, ice, and wind. Emphasis is on geoscience processes that shape local geographic features, where appropriate.

Assessment Boundary: none

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this performance expectation.

Comments about Including the Performance Expectation
Students are constructing an explanation based on evidence from a “core”. Knowing what materials make up the core students determine what the past environment was like. Students create a “core” and write their explanation. The cores from different groups are place around the room and students find the core created by another team based on the other teams stratigraphic column. What would make this a stronger activity would be to have students describe the history behind the “core” they located and see how closely it matches what the other team describes.

Science and Engineering Practices

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this science and engineering practice.

Comments about Including the Science and Engineering Practice
Students are given a lesson on what rocks can tell us about past environments and also how we read the record in rocks. They use this information to create a “core” and then described the environments that would have occurred to create the series of layers in their “core”. Their descriptions are based on their knowledge about the particles that make up the “core” and what environments could create those particles. To strengthen this students should draw stratigraphic columns of several other “cores” that other students created plus their interpretations of those columns. Then as other students describe the environments that created the “core” students could see how accurate they were.

Disciplinary Core Ideas

This resource appears to be designed to build towards this disciplinary core idea, though the resource developer has not explicitly stated so.

Comments about Including the Disciplinary Core Idea
Rock strata are laid down in specific ways. Students are given a short overview of the rules of looking at layers of rock. Students have a number of “rock types” to choose from and they have had a discussion about the environments that would probably have created them. Then they create a “core” that represents rock layers that have been sampled. Based on the assumption that what has occurred in the past is presently occurring today students describe a sequence of events that occurred to create the “rock layers” that they observe in the core.

Crosscutting Concepts

This resource appears to be designed to build towards this crosscutting concept, though the resource developer has not explicitly stated so.

Comments about Including the Crosscutting Concept
Students create a model of a core of rock layers. Knowing the environments that would have created those types of “rocks” students construct a sequence of events that would have created that particular layer of “rocks.” Students are having to look at changes to rocks that would have formed the different layers through time (what layer it's in) and the process (environmental factor) that formed that type of sediment.

Resource Quality

  • Alignment to the Dimensions of the NGSS: Students use a model to construct an explanation as to discover what environment the “rock core” belongs to, this is the science practice referred to as using and collecting data. This evidence, such as from rock strata as mentioned in the disciplinary core idea and the performance expectation, which will provide evidence to describe past environments. In order to do target the science practice of constructing explanations and designing solutions, the key is the interpretation of the core that students need to generate from other student models in the room, an interpretation of a core they did not create.The crosscutting concept represents the scale model of the “rock core”

  • Instructional Supports: There is an overall description of what students are expected to know/understand at the end of the activity. The activity provides some clear suggestions and questions to ask students as the class moves through the activity. The amount of time on each part is indicated to give some check-points along the way. However, there are no suggestions for differentiation. My suggestions for differentiation would be to front load the topic of core sampling. A great activity for core sampling, is to use a drinking straw as a probe into a “twinkie” or a layered cupcake. This will show the layers inside the straw which will resemble a core sample.

  • Monitoring Student Progress: There is little information on how to monitor student progress to see if they are understanding the concepts underlying the ideas of how to read rock layers. Students model a very simply “core” of horizontal layers with nothing else disturbed. The class is questioned along the way but that doesn’t necessarily given an idea of how certain individuals are doing in their understanding. There is the stratigraphic column students created of their own “core” and they must include an explanation about the environments that would have created the “rocks” in their “core”. A rubric could be created that could assess stratigraphic columns that students make of several cores and descriptions of environments that would have created them.

  • Quality of Technological Interactivity: This resource has no technological component.