Defining Earth Layers

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SWBAT label and define the layers of the Earth using Cornell style notes

Big Idea

Our planet is much more than the 3rd rock from the Sun. We will take a closer look at the layers of our planet.

The Need For The Lesson

This lesson builds student understanding of the earth's structure in order to dig deeper into the understanding of Earth's processes.

Strategy to Look For: Using the Cornell Notes format provides students with a template to use as they add definitions to their labeled drawings. 

Investigation Preparation & Summary

10 minutes

Investigation Summary & Standards

Student learning includes the understanding of how the Earth's surface changes over time. This lesson builds the foundation for that understanding by examining the layers of the Earth. 

This lesson depends heavily on visual learning. Locating/obtaining these visuals can be time consuming and expensive, so why not make your own? So this lesson includes a simple How To Create Graphic for Students tutorial. It's a tool that you can use again and again!

(MS-ESS2-2 Construct an explanation based on evidence how geoscience processes have changed Earth's surface at varying time and spatial scales) and (SP2 Developing and Using Models)

Students working as scientists will create a representation of the Earth's layers and define the layers using the USGS site as a primary source. In this student writing activity, we are working on defining our labels using concise definitions that are easy to remember. (WHST.6-8.10 Write routinely over extended time frames (time for reflection and revision) and shorter time frames (a single sitting or a day or two) for a range of discipline-specific tasks, purposes, and audiences.)


Misconception Alert: The composition of our planet is much more than rock. Students may harbor the misconception that the Earth is only rock by the popular expression "third rock from the Sun.

Students in Action

40 minutes

Students in Action

Science is a vocabulary rich course for students. Attaching vocabulary to drawings helps students by beginning with a concrete example as we guide them to thinking more abstractly about ideas that are based on what we infer from evidence and not things we can actually see.

In this lesson, the students have a drawing to label, instructions for coloring the layers and a sample layout for the Cornell Notes on the Earth Layers Student Sheet. (The materials for this lesson are included in the resource section.)

Students find their own definitions, using the USGS website, and record the definitions using the Cornell Notes note taking format. Students are encouraged to create concise definitions in their own words. 


Using the definitions as a guide, students label the Earth Layers drawing as we complete the labeling as a whole class activity. This is a foundational lesson to the student understanding of Earth processes so we want to make sure the definitions and labeling of the drawing are correct.

I use a document camera and projector to share my work as I complete the labels along with the students.

Research shows that taking notes is an effective instructional strategy. The Cornell Notes format includes drawings, and is one of many options we will explore throughout the school year as an organizer for students to develop understanding of their content vocabulary.

This is an example of a proficient students' work. The purpose of note taking is for the student to have an accurate record they can refer to, so I don't "grade" student work. I emphasize that it important that it is accurate and they can read it. A closer look at this student sample is available in the resources section.

We still need to make sure to use this vocabulary in context throughout the unit. 

Connecting the Learning

10 minutes

We conclude with this great video from the MIT Education Lab. Designed for young learners, this video helps students make connections to deepen their understanding. For instance, the percent of the egg that is the outer shell is about 2% of the total egg. Coincidently, the percent of the Earth that is the crust is also about 2%.

The video takes students on a journey to the center of the Earth, describing each layer. They also address the fact that we cannot travel to the center of the Earth, but we can infer what we know about each layer from the evidence gathered from seismic waves.

I recommend that you review it first, and show it to your students twice. The first time show it straight through, and then the second time stop and start it it for understanding (you could reverse these if you think that would work better for your kids). 

:40 -- Although not critical to understanding the remainder of this video, the idea of a changing earth is the point of these lessons, and our current changes are all related to how the earth was formed. So you might want to stop it here and talk about how scientists believe the earth was formed over vast geologic time.

:45 -- "The heavier materials sunk to the center, and the heavier materials rose to the top." Students might struggle with this idea because they haven't thought of the earth as having a center before. Tips that might help – hold up any sort of solid sphere that has been cut in half. Tell students it is a model of the earth – so where is the center? Where is the “top”? And as for heavy material sinking … ask them if they can think of some examples from their lives of what sinks and what floats.

1:30  A quick check in – is sixteen hundred degrees F hot? About what temperature is it today? Do a quick comparison.

2:10 -- One simple tip here is to just point out that the red/yellow sphere on the right represents the earth. Also, throughout this section on comparing an egg to the earth, you may want to check in on understanding.  To meet this standard students don’t need to know all of these names – so keep in mind the focus is on understanding that the earth is made in layers, these layers are different in structure, and content.