Teaching Earth Science in Upper Elementary Grades

Teaching earth science in upper elementary? Take some time to learn how all the pieces fit together. For example, in third grade, kids learn about the atmosphere, and in fourth grade, they learn about the geosphere. Finally, in fifth grade, students explore the hydrosphere. Then they’re ready to analyze interactions between all of Earth’s spheres.

Teaching Earth Science in Upper Elementary Grades

Understanding the scope and sequence of upper elementary earth science curriculum fine tunes instruction. Let’s take a look at the Next Generation Science Standards to see where your grade level fits.

Teachers generally think of topics in terms of their disciplinary focus (e.g., geology or astronomy). It’s important to note, however, that the NGSS organizes concepts around a Three Dimensional Learning. In addition to disciplinary core ideas, each standard also addresses science practices (including engineering design) and crosscutting concepts (such as systems and patterns).

When teachers pay attention to the multi-dimensional intent of their curriculum, kids benefit. First, topics scaffold naturally. Earlier grades establish a broad foundation; later grades build on it. Second, students participate in a variety of scientific activities instead of learning solely from books. Finally, they make connections in science (and in life itself), which allow a broader understanding.

Earth Science Systems

Learning about Earth’s spheres is the focal point of earth science in third, fourth, and fifth grades. Kids learn about the atmosphere in third grade, the geosphere in fourth, and the hydrosphere in fifth. They study the final sphere, the biosphere, in the life science portion of the curriculum. Once they have a firm grasp of these concepts, fifth graders also consider how each sphere affects the others.

Third Grade Earth Science – Atmosphere

At this level, students learn about weather and climate. For the best experience, teachers set up a classroom weather station. Acting as meteorologists, kids use science tools and use patterns to analyze and interpret data.

Additionally, students explore climate zones (polar, temperate, subtropical, and tropical). At this level, teachers can also introduce three climate influencers: mountains, oceans, and the atmosphere. This sets the stage for deeper understanding of interactions between Earth’s spheres.

Fourth Grade Earth Science – Geosphere

Fourth grade earth science focuses on the geosphere.

Initially, kids learn about slow changes to Earth’s surface (weathering, erosion, and deposition). They carry out investigations, which reveal cause-effect relationships.

Using simple materials like chalk and crackers, students can simulate mechanical changes by waves, internal and external pressure. Then they use chalk, steel wool, and saltwater to investigate chemical weathering by carbon dioxide, oxygen, and water.

Next, using a DIY stream table, kids conduct a variety of labs to explore how four factors affect erosion: slope, groundcover, volume of water, and obstacles.

Fourth graders also use maps to explore patterns of Earth’s features. For example, they can use latitude and longitude to plot major volcanoes on a world map. Then, by analyzing the patterns, kids can discover the Ring of Fire on their own. Activities like this help students conceptualize large-scale interactions and provide an introduction to plate tectonics.

Fifth Grade Earth Science – Hydrosphere and Interactions

In fifth grade, students learn about the final sphere, the hydrosphere. Specifically, they use data to create and interpret graphs about the amount of salt, fresh, and accessible fresh water on Earth. Reviewing the hydrologic (water) cycle supports kids’ understanding of interactions between the hydrosphere and other spheres.

In fifth grade physical science, kids also explore how the Sun provides energy for all food on Earth. Investigating the movement of energy and matter in an ecosystem connects concepts between the three branches of science.

Finally, students are ready to explore interactions between Earth’s spheres. Given situations from the natural world, kids can identify the sphere causing the interaction, as well as those affected. Soon, they will understand that any change creates a chain reaction.

For example:

  • Situation: A volcano releases carbon dioxide into the air.
  • Sphere causing the interaction: geosphere
  • Sphere affected by the interaction: atmosphere
  • Chain reaction: Carbon dioxide from the geosphere (volcano) moves into the atmosphere. Then it is used for photosynthesis by plants in the biosphere. [geosphere -> atmosphere -> biosphere -> and so on]

Earth Science and Humans

Upper elementary earth science students also investigate cause-effect relationships between humans and the Earth. This includes how human actions affect the environment, as well as how the environment affects us.

Integrating Engineering Design

First, kids explore design solutions for natural disasters.

In third grade, kids “make a claim about the merit of a design solution that reduces the impact of a weather-related hazard.” This can range from an umbrella to a tornado siren to a sea wall.

By fourth grade, they’re ready to “generate and compare multiple solutions to reduce the impacts of natural Earth processes on humans.” This provides a great opportunity to teach the engineering design process in depth. For example, the resources linked below scaffold understanding of engineering as kids explore various natural disasters:

  1. Kids consider a scenario in which a farmer’s field floods. After analyzing the situation, they define the problem and explain the criteria and constraints.
  2. Students read a natural disaster scenario in which citizens of a town at the base of a volcano need to know when an eruption is likely. They define the problem, list criteria and constraints. Then, working in groups, they brainstorm possible solutions.
  3. Kids receive a complete two-page engineering design lab sheet for the problem of a crumbling mountain road. From the report, kids must identify the independent, controlled, and dependent variable; determine which measurement tools were needed; and explain factors that ensured a fair test.
  4. Students participate a partial STEM challenge on a tsunami-proof house. Groups begin by brainstorming. Then they identify the solution that best meets the criteria and constraints. Next, they build a prototype, test and record observations, evaluate and identify failure points. Using this information, they conduct a fair test.
  5. Finally, they complete the entire engineering design process on their own with an earthquake-proof skyscraper.

Researching Energy and Fuels

Fourth grade students also “obtain and combine information to describe that energy and fuels are derived from natural resources and their uses affect the environment.”

After direct instruction on natural resources, fossil fuels, and the greenhouse effect, kids are ready to take a deeper dive. Let’s look at a few options for addressing this standard.

Option 1: Students research five types of vehicles: gasoline, EV (all-electric vehicle), HEV (hybrid electric vehicle), FCEV (fuel cell electric vehicle), and PHEV (plug-in hybrid electric vehicle). They gather information on how they work, range, and environmental impact. Then they organize and evaluate the information to determine which vehicle is most favorable. Finally, they design their own “green” vehicles. Kids love this!

Option 2: Students learn more about atoms, current electricity and how it’s generated. Then they read about seven sources of electricity: coal, geothermal, hydropower, natural gas, nuclear, solar, and wind. Next, they determine whether each uses renewable or nonrenewable resources. Finally, kids write an opinion piece on which source should be used to generate electricity.

Exploring How Communities Use Science

In fifth grade, students explore how communities use science ideas to solve problems. Of all applications, wastewater treatment is probably the most widespread. In the resource below, kids read about the process and answer questions. Then they write an essay that explains how communities use science ideas in the wastewater treatment process.

Earth and Space Science

In first grade, students observe that the Sun, Moon, and stars have predictable patterns. Additionally, they realize that length of daylight hours corresponds with seasons.

However, in upper elementary earth science, students don’t return to the study of astronomy until fifth grade.

Evidence of Earth’s Motion

As groundwork for movement of the Earth, kids explore patterns in shadows, constellations, and daylight hours.

In one day, shadows start long, shrink, then expand again. Additionally, they tend to rotate. Using sidewalk chalk, kids can chronicle these changes. From their observations (and background information), they can deduce that Earth’s rotation causes the apparent movement of the Sun across the sky each day.

Because the Sun is lower in the winter sky, shadows are longer and then shrink as summer approaches. Observing shadows of nearby structures (such as a building or flagpole) provides important evidence of Earth’s tilt in its revolution around the Sun.

Constellations provide more evidence of Earth’s revolution. By manipulating the Earth inside a model of the starfield, kids can see that different constellations in the zodiac belt can be observed in different seasons.

Patterns in daylight hours also support understanding of Earth’s relative motion. Using tables of daylight hours for the month of December, for example, allow kids to figure elapsed time. The data will show daylight hours increasing in the southern hemisphere and decreasing in the northern hemisphere. However, around the solstice, this pattern will stall out and then reverse.

Exploring patterns of shadows, constellations, day and night help kids conceptualize our planet’s motion relative to its star, the Sun.

Size and Distance of Stars

Additionally, fifth graders brightness of stars. Using two different sizes of flashlights, it’s easy to illustrate how a bigger star appears smaller when it’s far away.

Enjoy Teaching Earth Science in Upper Elementary Grades

Looking at the big picture helps us understand the scope and sequence of our students’ earth science journey. We know where they’ve been, where they’re going, and how our piece fits.

When teachers embrace their grade-level expectations, kids benefit with a thorough, well-sequenced education. Furthermore, we can relax and enjoy teaching even more.

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