Earth's Dynamically Changing Climate

PBS NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Type Category
Instructional Materials
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.




This activity uses the 5E (engage, explore, explain, elaborate, evaluate) to guide students through the causes and effects of global climate change. In engage, students watch several videos and identify nine pieces of evidence of global climate change. In explore, students dig deeper into four indicators of global climate change using two interactive simulations and graphical analysis of data, In explain, students read an article by a NASA scientist answering the five most frequently asked questions about global climate change. In elaborate, students use the NASA Sea Level Viewer to show how data can be analyzed. In evaluate, students look at albedo and begin to think about feedback in a system and finally test their knowledge with an interactive quiz. To do the full activity would take about 5-10 days depending on the depth of research the teacher requires. Teachers may do portions of the activity, but engage and explore would be required in order to make sure students have a good understanding of Earth’s changing climate.

Intended Audience

Educator and learner
Educational Level
  • Grade 12
  • Grade 11
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
Students use a variety of NASA simulations to visualize how global climate change has impacted Earth systems (biosphere, geosphere, hydrosphere and atmosphere). In the engage activity, students first watch a video entitled "Earth's Systems" and are instructed to identify different interactions among the systems. A second video students watch, "A Subsistence Culture Impacted by Climate Change," students are instructed to identify the impacts local cultures face due to global climate change. The final activity in the engage portion, students investigate nine pieces of evidence for global climate change. In the explore portion, students dig further into four topics (sea ice, sea level, CO2, and global temperatures). They use selected readings and simulations to identify when the changes first occurred and hypothesize why they occurred, as well as compare this new information to what they have heard in the media and if anything was surprising to them. Possible hypotheses would rely on student’s knowledge of industry and booms (rise in cars, rise in suburbs, etc…). Students may need guided questions to bring out how the various times they start to see changes relate back to changes in humans’ lifestyles. In the elaborate section, students use NASA's Sea Level Viewer simulation to explore what would happen to different parts of the world if sea levels increased. Finally in the evaluate section, students use a PBS source, Earth's Albedo and Global Warming, to investigate the feedback loop of albedo decreasing and global temperatures increasing.

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 different NASA simulations and graphs of climate data to identify key factors and evaluate evidence of global climate change. They explore the following pieces of evidence for global climate change: rising sea level, rising global temperatures, warming oceans, shrinking ice sheets, declining arctic sea ice, glacial retreat, extreme events, ocean acidification, and decreased snow cover. Students gain a deeper understanding of four parts (sea levels, sea ice, CO2 levels, and global temperature) using NASA’s Climate Time Machine simulations. A second activity to have students do to determine some possible solutions to reduce human impacts would be UN Climate Council. Teachers could also have students, as an extension activity, identify possible solutions to reduce the impact humans have had on the environment (investigate green technologies).

Disciplinary Core Ideas

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

Comments about Including the Disciplinary Core Idea
Students use many different simulations, videos, and readings to identify ways in which humans have impacted the hydrosphere, atmosphere, and biosphere. While the major focus is on the hydrosphere and atmosphere, there is some focus during the engage portion of the unit where students watch videos and identify impacts to humans, animals, and plants.

Crosscutting Concepts

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

Comments about Including the Crosscutting Concept
The simulations that students study to help show rates of change over extended periods of time. Students watch a global visual of annual Arctic sea ice minimum from 1979-2014, projected sea level increases in several areas around the globe, concentration and distribution of global CO2 from 2002-2014, and changing global surface temperatures from 1889-2014. After this, students do further investigation and analyze graphical data of those four changes using NASA’s Global Climate Change website.

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 should be able to identify that changes to one system, such as ice sheet declining, will cause effects to sea levels rising. While this is not explicitly investigated, students may begin to notice that there is a positive feedback loop with several of the pieces of evidence they investigate. Other positive feedback loops they may begin to notice are changes to glacial and ice coverage decreasing due to melting causing a reduced albedo which leads to warmer temperatures due to increased absorption of solar radiation which then causes even more melting.

Resource Quality

  • Alignment to the Dimensions of the NGSS: In the series of five activities, students deepen their understanding of how increasing global climates impact all of Earth’s systems. They use the practice of analyzing data to make sense of how oceans, ice (both sea and land), and the atmosphere have changed over the past 100 years. Students are able to use the disciplinary core idea to see how our understanding and knowledge of these changes have increased. Students read an article by a NASA scientist that answers the five most asked questions about climate change (explain section). They are directed to look for how he describes the data (averages and long term) and what the implications of that are. Students are not formally asked to explain how or why Earth’s climate is changing, but they do try to make some connections through discussion. They are engaged in two cross cutting concepts, both examples of stability and change where they see that we can model changes over long periods of time and how feedback (positive) can destabilize the system. The feedback is most explicitly seen when they investigate changes to sea and land ice levels. There is some disjointedness to the fourth lesson, elaborate, where students learn how to use data. This lesson focuses on how to read a graph but directs students to use the NASA Sea Level Viewer, where graphical data is not a focus (graphical data is a focus in the explore activity using NASA’s Global Climate Change website).

  • Instructional Supports: Students are engaged in looking at evidence in a variety of forms, simulations, videos, readings, and graphical analysis, to make sense of the changes to our planet’s climate as a result of global climate change. While the phenomena students are engaged in is large, global climate change, the activities are presented in a way that it breaks it down into pieces of evidence and indicators. The activities are not explicit in differentiating between evidence and indicators. The nine pieces of evidence (website says eight) include three of the four indicators. The overlap between the pieces of evidence and indicators may lead to some confusion for students. To help avoid this overlap, the three indicators (sea level rise, global temperature rise, declining Arctic sea ice/shrinking ice sheets) that are also presented as evidence, should be introduced only as indicators. With greater differentiation between evidence and indicators, students may be able to deepen their understanding of stability and change in regards to feedback on systems. While some supports and prompts for discussion are provided, teachers may have to expand on those for struggling students. This activity is heavy in discussion. Students not used to discussion may prefer having a set of questions to help guide them as they research to feel better prepared for a discussion about their findings.

  • Monitoring Student Progress: There are no pre or post assessments teachers can use to identify student growth during the unit. It is up to teachers to design rubrics of each of the various activities. This is a long term, sustained project as it takes several class periods (45 min) to do the engage portion. Teachers could have students create a summary table of the nine pieces of evidence which can be used throughout and added to as additional information is discovered. Teachers should also write on the board the prompts students are asked to discuss after watching each video. Post-It notes for students to write down their observations and put on a discussion poster would be a good technique to use. In the explore section, teachers may want to create a virtual notebook for students to record information about the four indicators for climate change. After completing this section, they should update the summary table. In the explain section, students that struggle with close reading may need a set of guided questions and prompts to look for while reading the article. Another strategy that could be used is to make a word wall for the article as students may be unfamiliar with some of the terms. A pre discussion to make sure everyone is in agreement of what averages and time (long vs. short term) should be conducted to make sure interpretations are consistent. The elaborate section gives very little direction as to how to use the Sea Level Viewer to help students analyze graphical data. Teachers should preview the Sea Level Viewer to determine what type of activity they wish to have students complete. The final evaluate activity, teachers will want to preview the interactive to determine what they want students to analyze.

  • Quality of Technological Interactivity: A computer with internet access is required to run the simulations and videos. The simulations require no additional input other than pushing play.