Use a variety of earth science projects to teach slow and fast changes. This set of lesson plans engages fourth graders – and matches the standards!
Ms. Sneed Plans Fourth Grade Earth Science
Our favorite fourth grade teacher, Ms. Sneed, tapped away on her keyboard. Soon, she found what she was looking for. She positioned her laptop so her teaching partner could see. “Take a look at these free earth science lesson plans.”
“As you can see,” Ms. Sneed said, “these activities address our NGSS earth and space science standards.” While she scrolled through the plans, Mr. Frank looked on.
Slow Changes to Earth’s Surface
“In the lesson plans, she lists overarching questions, standards, and objectives. Then a pacing guide suggests a sequence that scaffolds learning. In addition, tables organize instruction for each day.”
Earth Science Activities to Simulate Slow Changes
Ms. Sneed scrolled to standards and objectives for a unit on slow changes to Earth’s surface. She read the overarching question aloud: “How do weathering, erosion, and deposition slowly change Earth’s surface?”
“That addresses Next Generation Science Standard 4-ESS2-1,” said Mr. Frank.
4-ESS2-1 Make observations and-or measurements to provide the effects of weathering or the rate of erosion by water, ice, wind, or vegetation.
Ms. Sneed nodded. “This resource lays the groundwork with conceptual knowledge of slow changes to Earth’s surface: weathering, erosion, and deposition.”
“And look at this,” said Mr. Frank, “a series of labs give kids hands-on experiences with mechanical and chemical weathering, as well as erosion and deposition. Most of the experiments use a stream table made with plastic paint trays.”
Ms. Sneed slowly moved through the pages of the preview. If we did all of these activities, it would take ten days. First, kids take a pretest. Second, they conduct a variety of experiments. Third, they identify weathering, erosion, and deposition in a series of pictures. Finally, they review and take a posttest.”
Earth Science Activities About Fossil Layers
“On to the next unit,” Ms. Sneed said. Quickly, she clicked back to the lesson plans. “It covers fossil layers.”
Mr. Frank read the overarching question aloud: “How do rock formations and fossils in rock layers explain changes in Earth’s surface over time?.”
Then they both looked at the standard:
4-ESS1-1 Identify evidence from patterns of rock formations and fossils in rock layers to support an explanation for changes in a landscape over time.
“Let’s take a look at the fossil layers activities,” said Ms. Sneed. With a few clicks, she landed on the product page.
“More hands-on activities,” she announced. “First, kids build rock layers with modeling clay. This simulates how deposited material builds up over many years. Then they make their own fossils with modeling clay and glue.”
Mr. Frank looked on. “In addition, they learn about evidence. For example, from animal fossils, we can determine whether they were carnivores or herbivores.
“They continue with analysis of diagrams. From them, kids can figure out the order in which the layers formed. Furthermore, they can tell if the layer existed on land or under water.”
“Another hit!” Ms. Sneed exclaimed. “Let’s move on.”
Earth Science Activities to Focus on Fossil Fuels
The next unit shifted gears. Instead of hands-on experimentation, students would conduct research.
Again, the pair studied the standard:
4-ESS3-1 Obtain and combine information to describe that energy and fuels are derived from natural resources and their uses affect the environment.
“‘After exploring deposition and fossils, kids will understand that layers containing masses of dead plants and animals were compressed to form fossil fuels. Using that information as a springboard, they explore how fossil fuels are used today, how they impact the environment, and what we can do to reduce those impacts,'” Mr. Frank read. “Let’s take a peek at the fossil fuels activities.”
“On the first day,” Ms. Sneed said, “kids learn about and classify renewable and nonrenewable resources.
“Then, on the second day, they read about fossil fuels, the greenhouse effect, and how electricity is generated.”
Mr. Frank chimed in, “And on the third day, the fun begins! Kids research five types of vehicles: gasoline, all-electric (EV), hybrid electric (HEV), fuel cell electric (FCEV), and plug-in hybrid electric (PHEV).”
“Next, kids compare and contrast the vehicles, focusing on range and effects on the environment. Finally, for the grand finale, each student designs an eco-friendly vehicle.”
The two teachers grinned at one another. Another winner.
Fast Changes to Earth’s Surface
As Ms. Sneed looked back at the lesson plans, she said, “A set of fast and slow changes posters helps kids differentiate between the two.”
Each printable page featured one change. Slow changes included weathering, erosion, and deposition. Fast changes covered earthquakes, volcanoes, landslides, and tsunamis.
“Kids use flashcards to review. Then they take a short test to assess their knowledge,” Mr. Frank said. “It reassures me that they’ll know the vocabulary.”
Earth Science Activities to Map Volcanoes
“The fourth grade Next Generation Science Standards don’t explicitly address fast changes to Earth’s surface,” Ms. Sneed said. “Instead, kids learn about earthquakes, volcanoes, landslides, and tsunamis as they practice process skills.
“This set of volcano mapping activities addresses this standard:
4-ESS2-2 Analyze and interpret data from maps to describe patterns of Earth’s features.
“From this, the overarching question asks how patterns in Earth’s features help us understand past, present, and future changes to Earth’s surface.”
As the teachers studied the preview, they noticed that students would use latitude and longitude skills to plot notable volcanoes of the 21st century. From that they would locate the Ring of Fire.
“As an extension,” Ms. Sneed said, “we could use these volcano cards for measuring or researching. Color and grayscale maps provide opportunities for more exploration.”
Earth Science Activities About Natural Disasters
Reducing Impacts of Natural Earth Processes
4-ESS3-2 Generate and compare multiple solutions to reduce the impacts of natural Earth processes on humans.
Teaching the Engineering Design Process
“However,” he continued, “kids use the processes from the engineering design standards.”
The pair leaned in closer to study the natural disaster activities.
“On the first day,” Mr. Frank began, “we introduce the engineering design process, as well as criteria and constraints. After that, students practice discriminating between the two. The scenario for that day is a flooding farmer’s field. Kids practice writing out the problem, as well as the criteria and constraints.”
“I like the way direct instruction, practice, and real-life situations are woven into daily instruction,” Ms. Sneed remarked. “Very effective.”
“And I like the way we can use earth science materials from the dollar store!”
As the teachers read through the next four days, they realized that each day taught something new:
- On the second day they would introduce brainstorming. Then their students would practice with a situation about a town at the bottom of an active volcano.
- On Day #3, they would introduce the fair test. After that, kids would work on a problem involving erosion.
- Then on the fourth and fifth days, kids built prototypes for a tsunami-proof home and earthquake-proof skyscraper.
“More great stuff,” Ms. Sneed said as they wrapped up.
For more than 30 years, I enjoyed teaching upper elementary students – mostly fourth grade. Now I tell my tales through a fictitious educator, Ms. Sneed. Like you, she grapples with day-to-day classroom challenges. And like you, she meets those challenges head-on. Hopefully, each of her stories will give you some ideas and inspiration.
If you’d like to learn more, explore six ways to enjoy teaching. First, to survive, a teacher must get organized, plan, and simplify. Then, in order to thrive, they need to learn more about their craft, engage students (and themselves!), and dive in.