Spaceship Earth: Concept evaluation (4 of 5)

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Students will be able to: 1) describe a consequence of the human colonization of Earth; 2) select evidence that will support a claim about potential resource management strategies; and 3) define the subtasks required to complete complex tasks.

Big Idea

The concept of Spaceship Earth can be used as an analytic framework that has wide ranging implications for humans' approach to management of the Earth. How might we develop management strategies that minimize the influence of human colonization of Earth?

FRAME: Is Spaceship Earth a valid concept?

How is the Earth like a spaceship? This series of lessons introduce a key idea for environmental science: life requires a careful balance of interconnected relationships that humans increasingly need to manage.  In a lesson developed by Dr. Penny Firth, a scientist, and Mr. Bradley Smith, Director of the Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program of the Department of Defense, the importance of the Spaceship Earth concept is nicely described:

How does our planetary life-support system work? There is no real mystery to the broad outlines of the story (although scientists continue to refine our understanding of various bits): the requirements for human life are provided by organisms and their interactions with the non-living environment. Energy from the sun powers the food webs and the water cycle and all parts of the system are interconnected. Outputs from one part of the system are inputs for another part. This linked output-input setup is often called feedback, and feedback is what keeps the system from careening out of bounds like a soccer ball. For earth, out of bounds might mean runaway global climate change (such as ice ages), or catastrophic loss of important species leading to the collapse of vital ecosystems, or wildly unusual extreme weather patterns and the consequent loss of life and property. 

This lesson is entitled Spaceship Earth to reinforce the idea that our planet is–in reality–like a spaceship hurtling through space on a long-duration mission. There is no resupply from outside sources. Recycling is as much a part of the natural order of things as is the sunrise everyday. Pollution occurs when there are outputs that cannot be used as inputs for something else. Pollution is harmful and can be downright dangerous. The connections between parts of the natural system are imperative to its normal operation. By actively thinking through what it takes to keep people alive on a spaceship, the students will come to understand more fully what it takes to keep people alive on this planet. 

Much of this course takes this idea of thinking of the Earth like a spaceship to a logical conclusion through its emphasis on community-based environmental stewardship initiatives.  It will not be enough for student to describe, argue, and research.  The findings of science will be applied to the actual environment of Brooklyn and the wider New York City area through engineering design thinking solutions to pressing problems.


ONE: Concept formation

Students form a conceptual understanding of Spaceship Earth and critique the merit of the concept through text exploration and discussion.

TWO: Concept application

Students deepen their understanding of the Spaceship Earth concept through application of the concept to models of the "tragedy of the commons."

THREE: Concept exploration

Students explore the Spaceship Earth concept through gamifiication protocols and develop ideas for how to teach the Spaceship Earth concept through interactive video games.

FOUR: Concept evaluation

Students evaluate the Spaceship Earth concept through rigorous review, collaborative peer review of texts.

FIVE: Concept evolution

Students discuss the Spaceship Earth concept through a speaking protocol.

By the end of this lesson sequence, successful students will have met the following objectives:

  1. develop a claim with evidence arguing for or against the resiliency of Earth
  2. derive the meaning of the concept of Spaceship Earth from the professional experiences of astronauts
  3. consider resources required to support life on Earth through student-led discussion.
  4. develop a claim with evidence arguing for or against the resiliency of Earth
  5. derive the meaning of the concept of Spaceship Earth from the professional experiences of astronauts
  6. consider resources required to support life on Earth through student-led discussion
  7. compare and contrast video game learning with more traditional classroom experiences
  8. develop deep content knowledge through immersion in a virtual "Spaceship Earth"
  9. develop scientific claims using appropriate evidence
  10. use engineering design thinking to iterate on an educational video game prototype
  11. describe a consequence of the human colonization of Earth
  12. select evidence that will support a claim about potential resource management strategies
  13. define the subtasks required to complete complex tasks
  14. describe the essential features of accountable talk
  15. defend a verbal claim using evidence
  16. connect takeaways from an accountable talk discussion to potential environmental stewardship management solutions

When humans ruled the Earth

10 minutes


Students explore the concept of Spaceship Earth through an abstract film.  The teacher facilitates whole class discussion that surfaces students' responses and connections to unit themes.


Students will watch a short, provocative film entitled When Humans Ruled The Earth.

Prompt: Some people would argue that one of the defining features of humankind is that we love to consume.  In fact, we can explain a lot about the history of our species if we take the perspective that humans are motivated by consumption.  What do you think?  As we watch this short film together, consider whether or not you agree with the view of humans presented.  Is this accurate? Is yes, what is your evidence?  If no, what is your evidence?

*NOTE: Some teachers may prefer a less abstract and less gory segment to show.  I can also recommend showing a scene from the Pixar film Wall-E.  The latter half is literally a representation of the Spaceship Earth idea and many scenes could be used for this lesson.



Students will have three minutes to conduct an individual response in their journals.  The whole class will then have a short discussion of responses and I will chart responses on the board.  I use a "notice-wonder-connection" framework.  Students share what they noticed in the film.  Then they share what they wonder about and questions that arose.  Finally, students attempt to make connections among ideas shared and themes developed during the unit.  What I want to students to understand after this discussion is that human consumption impacts the Earth negatively, technology plays a key role in human consumption patterns, industrialized systems support human consumption, and that these systems can be redesigned to lesson the negative impact of human consumption. 

Understanding human colonization

40 minutes

Activity Frame

I frame this activity by showing students the attached graph of human population growth over time.  I highlight the dramatic increase over the last 150 years and describe this as evidence of human colonization to match the content language that students are also learning in United States history.  Unlike history, however, I explain that our focus will be on the current relationship between humans and places.  How have humans colonized the Earth?  What have humans done to the environment?  And because the human species continues to grow, how might we manage our impact?  I explain that our purpose today is to answer these questions through a "deep dive."  We will use our research to participate in an Accountable Talk conversation in a future lesson.


The attached Activity Guideline describes the purpose and process of this activity.  Essentially students will investigate the focus questions using a range of provided resources.  These are:

Students will work in collaborative design teams of four to investigate four of these resources to prepare for class discussion.  See the blendspace reflection for one method of curating these resources for students that encourages active research.

Guiding questions for each resource are the same and encourage broad thinking and making connections rather than simple answers.  In fact, many students initially complain that questions are "Google proof."  It is difficult to develop responses to examined resources through a keyword internet search.

The Accountable Talk conversation will be a facilitated discussion of student research with an emphasis on sentences starters noted in the guide document.  The goal for students will be to engage in formal college-level discussion.

Teacher moves

This is a complex activity with many moving parts and a diverse range of student needs.  I have outlined task analysis, the key teacher move I make, in the reflection within the introduction to this lesson.  Task analysis is a skill I teach my students so that they are better able to chunk activities into manageable pieces and so that they are can identify their needs and ask for specific supports.  In this initial stage of the school year, task analysis will require purposeful modeling and student practice.  Over time, its purpose is to replace a student's "I don't get it" with more sophisticated, self-aware questions.

Another move I am making is allowing for student choice. This both increasing student ownership over the task and builds comfort with ambiguity.  As the scientific method and engineering design thinking processes are both always partial understandings of extremely complex systems, I take every opportunity to engage students in tasks that support their confidence in the conclusions they reach.

Finally, I used technology to purposefully constrain research options and to push students to develop "deep dive" responses.  See the reflection for more about how I do this. 

Strategy share and next steps

5 minutes


Students share our promising practices and assign homework to be completed for the next class.


To close the class I will check student progress and ask students to share a particular promising research strategy or effective task analysis.  I will also ask student to summarize what they have accomplished and what they need to complete to participate in the Accountable Talk discussion.  Students are tasked with completing this assignment before the next class meeting.  Depending on the class, I may have students actually create a block of time in their planner to work on their research.  Additionally, I may have some students model their process for identifying work that needs to be done.  

To be clear, students are assigning themselves rigorous work to be completed outside of class time.  If accountability is an issue, I usually have students complete a Google form describing the assignment that they have committed to complete by the next class.