Human Footprint

National Geographic
Type Category
Instructional Materials
Activity , Informative Text , Simulation
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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National Geographic created a series of three lessons exploring human impact on the environment. In the first activity, students explore maps and identify patterns of human population and impact on the environment. In the second activity, students learn about the Pacific Ocean garbage patch. They collect their recyclable trash for one week and weigh it. This is used to extrapolate additional data. In the final activity students learn how our increasing human population takes its toll on natural resources.  Students choose an animal to study and identify ways to reduce our impact on the chosen animal.

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-ESS3-6 Use a computational representation to illustrate the relationships among Earth systems and how those relationships are being modified due to human activity.

Clarification Statement: Examples of Earth systems to be considered are the hydrosphere, atmosphere, cryosphere, geosphere, and/or biosphere. An example of the far-reaching impacts from a human activity is how an increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide results in an increase in photosynthetic biomass on land and an increase in ocean acidification, with resulting impacts on sea organism health and marine populations.

Assessment Boundary: Assessment does not include running computational representations but is limited to using the published results of scientific computational models.

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

Comments about Including the Performance Expectation
In the first activity students are identifying areas on Earth that have sustained the most human impacts based on 4 factors - population, travel routes, land use and lights. Students also look at the reasons some areas are less influenced by humans and try to make connections between geographic features. Students can then extend their analysis by comparing the footprint with a global map of human population density.

HS-ESS3-4 Evaluate or refine a technological solution that reduces impacts of human activities on natural systems.

Clarification Statement: Examples of data on the impacts of human activities could include the quantities and types of pollutants released, changes to biomass and species diversity, or areal changes in land surface use (such as for urban development, agriculture and livestock, or surface mining). Examples for limiting future impacts could range from local efforts (such as reducing, reusing, and recycling resources) to large-scale geoengineering design solutions (such as altering global temperatures by making large changes to the atmosphere or ocean).

Assessment Boundary: none

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

Comments about Including the Performance Expectation
The first and second activities look at impact by humans on natural systems. In the second activity students investigate how much recyclable trash they accumulate in a week and then discuss how they could produce less trash. The third activity has students noting key issues about habitats and the future of an animal under threat. Students create a presentation to communicate key issues and suggest action steps. The link to the world footprint atlas in the lesson plan for activity 1 is no longer active. However, the world map along with several other regional maps can be obtained by going to This is a NASA site but you must create a profile to access the maps. The map could then be displayed by the instructor or a classroom set of color maps could be printed which would allow students access to the maps without the need for a computer.

Science and Engineering Practices

This resource was not designed to build towards this science and engineering practice, but can be used to build towards it using the suggestions provided below.

Comments about Including the Science and Engineering Practice
Students are using the Human Footprint Atlas to identify areas of high human impact to determine what the potential causes of these impacts are as well as why areas with low impact have low impact and what could potentially cause human impact to increase. An extension activity has them compare the Atlas to human population distribution. In the garbage activity, students weigh a week's worth of their recyclable trash and then calculate how much trash they would generate over time. They consider what this would look like and ways to reduce waste to reduce human impacts on the environment. The teacher could strengthen the idea that the students are analyzing and interpreting their data by engaging in a discussion about how completion of these three activities may change their own behaviors. If their behaviors change, will the amount of waste ever go to zero? Could they expand their analysis to calculate their future waste if they decide to (or technology helps them) reduce their weekly waste by 10%, 25%, etc.

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

Comments about Including the Science and Engineering Practice
In two of the activities, students evaluate a problem and identify ways we can reduce the problem in terms of changing human activity. Activity 2, "The Perils of Plastic," has students evalute their plastic garbage creation and think of ways to reduce it. Activity 3, "Protecting Earth's Wildlife," students select an anmial to study whose habitat is being disrupted by human activity. They again, need to research and create solutions to lesson the impact. In both cases, the problems are complex and no idea will completely solve the problem. Students will need to evaluate trade-offs to determine the best possible plan of action to reduce human impacts.

Disciplinary Core Ideas

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this disciplinary core idea.

Comments about Including the Disciplinary Core Idea
The first activity calls for students to make connections between areas of less human impact and the geography of the area. They are asked to predict if these areas will continue to have less human impacts in the future and identify possible factors that could change to increase the human impact on the area. They are then asked to make connections between areas of greater human impact and the geography of the area. Extension activities have students relating population distribution and human impact and creating a map of their own hometown identifying areas of higher human impact and lower human impact along with justifications.

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this disciplinary core idea.

Comments about Including the Disciplinary Core Idea
Students are tasked in the second activity with trying to identify ways we can reduce our waste. Possible discussion could lead into biodegradable plastics and alternatives to plastics that are less harmful to the environment.

Crosscutting Concepts

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

Comments about Including the Crosscutting Concept
Students research an animal living in a habitat that has been greatly impacted by humans. They try to identify ways that we can reduce or reverse that impact. Students would realize that some of the changes humans have made to those habitats cannot be reversed completely regardless of how much we do to try to change.

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

Comments about Including the Crosscutting Concept
While not the crosscutting concept found in the performance expectations, students are asked to identify patterns between the natural and human designed world to identify different phenomena. The major phenomena that is the focus of this series of lessons is human impacts on the habitats of animals, through habitat destruction and overuse of natural resources. Through the identification of these patterns, students will begin to see how reaching our influence is on Earth.

Resource Quality

  • Alignment to the Dimensions of the NGSS: To reach this rating, all three of the lessons need to be done in their entirety. Students use practices, disciplinary core ideas, and crosscutting concepts to identify reasons why human impacts are greater in some areas of the world than others, ways to reduce waste, and identify causes of human impacts on habitats and ways to reduce them.

  • Instructional Supports: Students are engaged in a variety of scenarios that give students a purpose. The scenarios presented to students are those that potentially impact their own lives. Student's prior knowledge as part of the projects is engaged as they have had some prior experiences in regards to ways to reduce waste. Extension activities give students a way to tie this into their own backyard. In the first activity, students could be asked to develop a map of their town identifying areas with greater human impact and lesser human impact. Students could also investigate ways to reduce plastic waste in their school or town. The guide gives suggestions and ways to help students reach the intended outcomes. Struggling learners can be helped by using the provided discussion prompts or by providing them with an already formulated spreadsheet to run their recyclable data.

  • Monitoring Student Progress: While expected students answers are given, as well as some guiding questions, there are no formal rubrics presented. The rubrics for grading each of the three culminating activities are very rudimentary, only giving a checklist of what students should have. It is up to the teacher to develop what the rankings of each of the items on the checklist should be.

  • Quality of Technological Interactivity: While students use computers to access information and/or create projects there really isn’t any interactivity with the technology. The human footprint atlas web link listed on the pdf file is no longer available. Teachers will need to access the atlas using this link: Prior to using this with students, teachers will want to explore how to use the atlas in order to guide their students. Other activities require a computer with internet access to do research. Students can choose to create projects using various multimedia.