Land and People Finding a Balance

US Department of the Interior/ US Geological Survey
Type Category
Instructional Materials
Project , Informative Text , Map , Experiment/Lab Activity , Activity , Data
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.



Students investigate human impacts and develop solutions to environmental problems for three different areas: Cape Cod, Everglades, and Los Angeles. In Cape Cod, students are tasked with trying to provide water for a population that has a contaminated aquifer. They perform three activities: what types of ground material make the best aquifer, cleaning up a contaminated aquifer, and predicting the path of groundwater contamination. In the Everglades, students are tasked with how to address the predicted decrease in rainfall to the area. They perform three activities: examining watershed development and water budgets, mapping the disappearing watershed, and investigating how the physiographic and geology of south Florida regions have impacted its use. In Los Angeles, students are tasked with identifying which geographic areas are the best to build a school on due to the least amount of geologic hazards. They perform three activities: explorating slope stability and the effect of water, illustrations of topography of an area, and determining risk of landslide caused by earthquakes.


These activities may take 4-5 days to complete. The activities for students require supplies that are easily purchased at a store. Teachers should review the supplies for each of the nine activities to ensure enough are available for each group.

Intended Audience

Educational Level
  • High School
Access Restrictions

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

Performance Expectations

HS-ESS3-1 Construct an explanation based on evidence for how the availability of natural resources, occurrence of natural hazards, and changes in climate have influenced human activity.

Clarification Statement: Examples of key natural resources include access to fresh water (such as rivers, lakes, and groundwater), regions of fertile soils such as river deltas, and high concentrations of minerals and fossil fuels. Examples of natural hazards can be from interior processes (such as volcanic eruptions and earthquakes), surface processes (such as tsunamis, mass wasting and soil erosion), and severe weather (such as hurricanes, floods, and droughts). Examples of the results of changes in climate that can affect populations or drive mass migrations include changes to sea level, regional patterns of temperature and precipitation, and the types of crops and livestock that can be raised.

Assessment Boundary: none

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

Comments about Including the Performance Expectation
Students are tasked to evaluate natural systems and identify how those systems have influenced human activity as well as how human activity has changed those systems. In Cape Cod, students evaluate how aquifers work and how humans have impacted them through contamination. In Everglades, students evaluate how watersheds work and how the geological land formations of the Everglades have impacted how humans use the land in the region. In Los Angeles, students evaluate how slope and sediment characteristics can affect how land reacts to changes caused by earthquakes. They evaluate which areas are at higher risk for landslides and what the people in the region should do to protect themselves from the natural hazard. To fully address this Performance Expectation, teachers could have students explore climate change using the resource, Earth’s Dynamically Changing Climate (

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 use models in each of the three case studies. In Cape Cod, students use maps and knowledge from their prior investigations in Activities 1 and 2 to predict the path of groundwater contamination from several toxic waste sources in Activity 3. After they have made their predictions, they compare them to the actual data. Students then discuss how their predicted paths could have helped geologists place their initial test wells to check for groundwater contamination. In Everglades, students use maps in Activity 2 to analyze changes to the area of the Everglades and possible causes for those changes. In Activity 3, students analyze maps and rock samples (optional) to determine how the geologic land formations impacted the use of the Everglades. In Los Angeles, students convert a topographic map into a relief to determine and predict how topography influences placement of debris retention basins. They use this knowledge as well as how slope and sediment characteristics, from Activity 1, to identify areas of high and low risk of earthquake-generated landslides.

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

Comments about Including the Science and Engineering Practice
Students carry out investigations in each area of study. In Cape Cod scenario, students build an aquifer in Activity 1 and then build a second aquifer in Activity 2 to determine how contamination from different sources at different depths affect the aquifer and how the contamination will need to be cleaned up. They use this data to predict the path of groundwater contamination from multiple toxic waste sources in Activity 3. In Everglades scenario, students determine how many households can be supported by the Everglades watershed using a simulation with a sample water use table. They use this information to help generate ideas for watershed changes in the Everglades in Activities 2 and 3. In Los Angeles scenario, students create sand castles first with dry sand and second with wet sand in Activity 1 to determine effect of slope and how water affects sediment characteristics. This data helps students to be able to identify areas of high risk for earthquake-generated landslides in Activity 3.

Disciplinary Core Ideas

This resource was not designed to build towards this disciplinary core idea, but can be used to build towards it using the suggestions provided below.

Comments about Including the Disciplinary Core Idea
Natural hazards are discussed the Los Angeles investigation. Students are tasked with determining which areas of the La Crescenta area are at greatest risk for landslides. They use this determination to help inform the public if the schools are safe in their current locations or should be moved. This Disciplinary Core Idea could be further strengthened by investigating how hurricanes have affected Cape Cod and the Everglades ( . Students could also investigate how earthquakes in the Los Angeles area have impacted human society (

This resource was not designed to build towards this disciplinary core idea, but can be used to build towards it using the suggestions provided below.

Comments about Including the Disciplinary Core Idea
This Disciplinary Core Idea is mostly realized in the Everglades investigation. Students evaluate the carrying capacity of households by the watershed in Activity 1. They then evaluate how the land formations have influenced land use in Activity 3. In the other two investigations, Cape Cod and Los Angeles, there is little discussion of why people moved to those areas. The focus of these two activities is more on human impact to the area (Cape Cod) and risk of natural hazards to humans (Los Angeles).

Crosscutting Concepts

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this crosscutting concept.

Comments about Including the Crosscutting Concept
In each geographical area of investigation, students first develop understanding of how some natural systems work on a smaller scale (aquifers, watersheds, slope, and sediment characteristics) in order to predict changes on a larger scale within each system (predicting path of toxic materials, land use of a watershed, and potential areas of high risk for earthquake-generated landslides).

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this crosscutting concept.

Comments about Including the Crosscutting Concept
In each of the three culminating activities for the geographic areas of study, students use a model to make predictions about the system they are studying and then compare these predictions to actual data. Students are asked follow-up questions to determine how well their predicted behaviors of the system correspond to actual behavior of each system.

Resource Quality

  • Alignment to the Dimensions of the NGSS: Students use Science and Engineering Practices and Crosscutting Concepts to develop understanding of Disciplinary Core Ideas in each of the three regions of study. Students are tasked with trying to design solutions for school placement in Los Angeles. They have to explain reasons for land usage based on geographical information in Everglades. Finally, they have to predict the flow of contaminated water in Cape Cod. While students are making sense of a specific phenomenon, they may not be able to apply their knowledge to other similar situations without exploring other related phenomenon further.

  • Instructional Supports: Students may not be able to connect their explanation of a phenomenon to their own experiences because of the specificity of the phenomenon they are investigating. While the investigations are scientifically accurate and give students shared experiences, there is not much identification within the instructional supports of possible student prior knowledge and how those investigations will build upon it. Some further questioning/ discussion may need to be incorporated into the activities to give students a chance to clarify their ideas and respond to peer and teacher feedback. Some activities include extensions that students with high interest may wish to explore. There are no suggestions for extra supports for struggling students. Teachers may have to modify the amount of reading for struggling students by using jigsaw, read-pair-share, or other similar activities. No suggestions have been provided on how to connect instruction to students’ home, neighborhood, community and/or culture for students in areas not covered by the three geographic areas of study.

  • Monitoring Student Progress: While there are some places of formative assessment teachers can use in instruction, questions after activities, there is no guide for teachers with possible student answers or misconceptions. There are no included rubrics or scoring guides to help teachers plan instruction or provide feedback. It is up to the teacher to develop any rubrics or scoring guides.

  • Quality of Technological Interactivity: - none -