Physical science using the environment - Teaching activities

When we think of sciences that relate to the environment, we often focus on life sciences. But that’s only part of the picture. The physical sciences--physics, chemistry, geology, astronomy, meteorology, and so on--are important, too.

Consider, for example, that neither people nor protozoa nor anything else would exist without the sun, water, soil, rocks, nutrients, air, and other nonliving components of our environment. Our bodies follow the laws of physics and chemistry. Our habitats are shaped by gravity and weather. Even the moon and the stars figure in, turning the tide and guiding migrating animals. Many environmental issues, such as water pollution, energy conservation, and global climate change, are grounded in the physical sciences. Lessons on the environment provide a good opportunity to introduce physical science concepts. Similarly, many physical science lessons are an open door to environmental topics. Here are some ideas for blending the two:

  • Hold a nonliving scavenger hunt. Search outdoors for nonliving things (rocks, soil, sun, air, water, etc.). Brainstorm how they affect living things, and how living things affect them. Talk about what kinds of scientists study these things, and how what they learn can make the world a better place.
  • Explore the physics of water. Discuss water’s unusual properties. Look at how plants and animals take advantage of them for everything from getting nutrients to the top of a tree to being able to hibernate at the bottom of a pond without freezing.
  • Learn about mineral exploration and mining in Minnesota. How do they benefit us? How do they affect other living things? How do we minimize the negative effects?
  • Consider how weather and climate influence the world around us. Discuss global climate change and how it might affect Minnesota’s environment.
  • Look at how physical principles shape living things. Find examples of simple machines in animals’ bodies. Link engineering principles with the shapes of trees. Talk about animal shape, size, and function. Why can whales grow so big? How feet back up to its heart? Why are fish and birds shaped the way they are?
  • Study cycles. Explore how water, nitrogen, and phosphorus travel through the environment. How do living things factor in? How do nonliving things factor in? How have humans altered these pathways?

Once you start looking, you’ll see many ways in which physical sciences fit into environmental education--and how environmental education can be incorporated into physical science lessons. Take advantage of opportunities to make the connection!

(From Winter 2002 Interconnections)

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