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.
Students form a conceptual understanding of Spaceship Earth and critique the merit of the concept through text exploration and discussion.
Students deepen their understanding of the Spaceship Earth concept through application of the concept to models of the "tragedy of the commons."
Students explore the Spaceship Earth concept through gamifiication protocols and develop ideas for how to teach the Spaceship Earth concept through interactive video games.
Students evaluate the Spaceship Earth concept through rigorous review, collaborative peer review of texts.
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:
How do we hold each other accountable for our speech?
Students watch a short clip of an Accountable Talk conversation among 2nd graders to help answer this question. They then share out what they observed to be the key features of this kind of discussion and ask clarifying questions. We will review key sentence starters, behavioral expectations, and conversations "moves" we can make to ask for clarification or steer conversation in a new direction.
(I show this clip from 2:00-4:45)
I have included a few examples of accountable talk signs that might go up on the walls of a room during accountable talk for students that would benefit from the support.
I will explain that this is an academic learning discussion. All student will contribute to the conversations and will be held accountable by classmates asking for clarification and evidence. I will remind students of the scaffolds they have created for this discussion. These include:
I will also outline my three non-negotiable rules:
I will open the discussion with one of the focus questions: What is the impact of the human colonization of Earth on the Earth itself?
Some of the cohorts I teach are more successful with small group discussion, especially English Language Learners that may not feel comfortable speaking in front of the class. The risk is that small group discussions may be more difficult to manage if students engage in off-task behavior.
The Accountable Talk discussion will yield rich ideas about how humans impact the Earth and what might be done to manage this impact. I will remind students that the process of engineering design thinking allows us to develop solutions to the problem of human impact. I will then explain that the rest of this unit will focus on how we can use scientific research to help us identify problems that we can attempt to solve through engineering design thinking.
How might we actively manage human impact on the environment? Much of this course is about action. With a partner, student will conduct an environmental stewardship "initiatives sort" using the environmental stewardship website from Columbia University. Each student within a pair will rank the eight initiatives listed on the right side of the page in order of importance. Students will then interview each other about their choices to gain a better understanding of their partner's values. Finally, students will share out what they discovered about their partner.
This activity allows students to understand the values of the members of the community and inserts the class into the conversation about management strategies. Environmental stewardship is not something done by other people; it is an action that can be done by us. And our attitudes reveal the needs that need to be met in order for us to engage fully in this work.