The Earth's Systems

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SWBAT develop a model to describe Earth's four major systems.

Big Idea

In this lesson, students are provided with an overview of the four major systems on Earth. Students will then analyze how the four spheres are pictured in a photograph.

Lesson Overview

Inquiry Based Instructional Model

To intertwine scientific knowledge and practices and to empower students to learn through exploration, it is essential for scientific inquiry to be embedded in science education. While there are many types of inquiry-based models, one model that I've grown to appreciate and use is called the FERA Learning Cycle, developed by the National Science Resources Center (NSRC):

1. Focus

2. Explore

3. Reflect

4. Apply

A framework for implementation can be found here

I absolutely love how the Center for Inquiry Science at the Institute for Systems Biology explains that this is "not a locked-step method" but "rather a cyclical process," meaning that some lessons may start off at the focus phase while others may begin at the explore phase. 

Finally, an amazing article found at, How Inquiry-Based Learning Works with STEM, very clearly outlines how inquiry based learning "paves the way for effective learning in science" and supports College and Career Readiness, particularly in the area of STEM career choices. 

Unit Explanation

In this unit, students will study each of Earth's major systems: biosphere, geosphere, hydrosphere, and atmosphere. In addition, students will investigate how these systems interact in multiple ways to affect Earth's materials and processes by conducting research, constructing graphs, creating models, carrying out scientific investigations, and analyzing real-world applications. 

Summary of Lesson

Today, I open the lesson by showing students a video on the earth's systems (spheres). Students then explore each of the earth's systems through a teacher presentation and rich class discussions. At the end of the lesson, students reflect and apply their new understanding of the spheres by analyzing how the four spheres are pictured in a photograph. 

Next Generation Science Standards  

This lesson will support the following NGSS Standard(s):

5-ESS2-1. Develop a model using an example to describe ways the geosphere, biosphere, hydrosphere, and/or atmosphere interact.  

Scientific & Engineering Practices

For this lesson, students are engaged in Science & Engineering Practice:

Science & Engineering Practice 2: Developing and Using Models

Students will use a diagram to describe Earth's major systems (spheres). Throughout the unit, students will reflect upon this model to discuss how the systems interact with one another. 

Crosscutting Concepts

To relate ideas across disciplinary content, during this lesson I focus on the following Crosscutting Concept

Crosscutting Concept 4: Systems and System Models 

Students examine Earth as a system (a group of parts working together to perform a function). They will also examine the components (spheres) and interactions of these components within the larger Earth system. 

Disciplinary Core Ideas

In addition, this lesson also aligns with the following Disciplinary Core Ideas

ESS2.A:  Earth Materials and Systems

Earth’s major systems are the geosphere (solid and molten rock, soil, and sediments), the hydrosphere (water and ice), the atmosphere (air), and the biosphere (living things, including humans). These systems interact in multiple ways to affect Earth’s surface materials and processes. The ocean supports a variety of ecosystems and organisms, shapes landforms, and influences climate. Winds and clouds in the atmosphere interact with the landforms to determine patterns of weather. (5-ESS2-1)

Choosing Science Teams

With science, it is often difficult to find a balance between providing students with as many hands-on experiences as possible, having plenty of science materials, and offering students a collaborative setting to solve problems. Any time groups have four or more students, the opportunities for individual students to speak and take part in the exploration process decreases. With groups of two, I often struggle to find enough science materials to go around. So this year, I chose to place students in teams of two or three! Picking science teams is always easy as I already have students placed in desk groups based upon behavior, abilities, and communication skills. Each desk group has about six kids, so I simply divide this larger group in half or thirds. 

Gathering Supplies & Assigning Roles

To encourage a smooth running classroom, I ask students to decide who is a 1, 2, or 3 in their groups of three students (without talking). In no time, each student has a number in the air. I'll then ask the "threes" to get certain supplies, "ones" to grab their computers, and "twos" to hand out papers (or whatever is needed for the lesson). This management strategy has proven to be effective when cleaning up and returning supplies as well!  


10 minutes

Teacher Note

When planning this unit, I found that NGSS standard, 5-ESS2-1 was quite complex: Develop a model using an example to describe ways the geosphere, biosphere, hydrosphere, and/or atmosphere interact. In past years, I would have taught an entire unit on just one of the spheres. 

Therefore, constructing lessons that would provide students with an in-depth understanding of all four systems within a single unit was the main objective. For this reason, I chose to use teacher anchor charts throughout the unit to immediately provide students with background knowledge on each of the spheres. This way, students could then build upon this knowledge base as they explored each sphere further (and deeper) on their own. The posters remained up throughout the unit so that students could continually refer to and apply their knowledge of the spheres when studying real-world applications later on. 

Lesson Introduction & Goal 

I introduce today's learning goal: I can develop a model to describe Earth's four major systems. I explain: There are four major systems on Earth: the biosphere (living organisms), hydrosphere (water), geosphere (such as rock), and atmosphere (air). Today, we are going to begin learning how each of these systems are connected on Earth. 


I want to inspire interest in today's lesson and capitalize on student curiosity, so I show the following video featuring Earth's systems. I chose this video in particular as it addresses not only the four systems, but how they interact. Also, it gets students thinking about and visualizing the Earth as a larger system itself.

Throughout the video, I stop and ask students to turn and talk about key questions: "What is the geosphere?" and "What do you think the narrator means when he says: Human activities can have an important impact on all spheres?" By questioning students frequently, students are engaged and truly thinking about the video. 


50 minutes

The Earth System Poster

I want to provide students with a general overview of all four systems (spheres). To support the idea that all of the systems overlap and work together, I use the same diagram to describe each system. Prior to the lesson, I project and draw this diagram on bulletin board paper: Earth Systems Template.  

While going over one sphere at a time, I slowly add notes to this poster in front of the students, using my notes: Earth Systems Teacher Notes. Here's what the poster will look like at the end of today's lesson: Completed Poster.

Creating posters with and in front of students is important because the more students are involved and are able to discuss and share ideas during the poster-creation process, the more likely they will be able to understand and remember these science concepts later on. In addition, the students become proud of these posters and will refer to it often throughout the rest of the unit. 


To aid comprehension, I categorize information today using a color-coding system. For example, when discussing the biosphere, all notes and labeling are in green and when discussing the hydrosphere, all notes and labeling are in blue. 

Getting Ready

I pass out a copy of Earth Systems Template to each student, as well as an 11 x 17 piece of construction paper. I model how to glue the template down in the middle of the poster so that students have room for note taking on the sides. Here are a few examples of what student work will look like at the end of this time: Student Poster Example 1Student Poster Example 2, and Student Poster Example 3.

The Earth System

I begin by writing "The Earth System" at the top of the poster. Students begin taking notes on their own posters at this this time as well. 

Today, we are going to take a look at the Earth as a system. Can anyone tell me what a system is? Recalling from past units, students respond, "A group of parts working together to perform a function (job)." What's really neat about the Earth's system is that it has four major parts or subsystems. Can anyone recall one of these subsystems from the video? Students excitedly raise their hands, ready to contribute. I call on one student at a time while writing their responses under the Earth System heading on the poster: biosphere, atmosphere, geosphere, and hydrosphere. 

This is a perfect opportunity to introduce the word, interconnected, to students. I explain: What's important to know about the four spheres on Earth is that they are interconnected. Turn and talk: What do you think interconnected means? After some time, students suggest, "They are connected," "They work together," "One part affects other parts." You're right! Interconnected means that all the spheres are connected and that no parts acts alone without influencing another part." 

Introducing the Biosphere

Having just taught a unit on Ecosystems, I feel that the biosphere is the perfect sphere to discuss first. Using my Earth Systems Teacher Notes as a guide, I start by writing the heading "Biosphere" on the poster in green and taking notes below: Biosphere Notes. The word part, bio means life, so when we talk about the biosphere, we are referring to all the life on Earth. One student brings up that bio is also used in the word biography (a true story about someone's life). I ask students to turn and talk: What on Earth is part of the biosphere? After some time, we discuss how the biosphere includes animals, plants, protists, bacteria, and fungi (the Kingdoms of Life). 

While asking questions and encouraging a high-level of student partcipation, we continue to take notes on the biosphere: Where can life be found on Earth? (in the sky, on the ground, or in the water) What do you think a scientist that studies life is called? (biologist) 

Identifying the Biosphere

Next, I ask students to apply what they have learned about the biosphere by identifying examples in the diagram in the middle of the poster. Using the green marker, I label several examples of life on Earth, per student suggestion: Biosphere Notes & Labels. Students love finding examples! It's like finding hidden objects in a picture! Examples include: fish, humans, crops, birds, trees, bacteria, livestock, grass, and plant pollen in the air.

After discussing the biosphere, I ask students to turn and teach: What is the biosphere? (I'll ask students to "turn and teach" after introducing each of the spheres today.) 


Next, we examine the next sphere that students are most familiar with, the hydrosphere. Students instantly suggest, "We should use a blue marker!" One student says, "I know what hydro means! It means water." Another student says, "I think the hydrosphere represents all the water on Earth. As more and more of the poster is completed, student responses begin to naturally guide the lesson. As we add Hydrosphere Notes to the poster, I continue to ask students questions, such as Where can the hydrosphere be found? How is the biosphere found in liquid form? Solid form? Gas form? Why is the biosphere so important to Earth? (all life depends on water) One student points out, "That means the whole biosphere depends on the hydrosphere! I'm proud to hear students beginning to make connections.

Then, just as before, I ask students to identify examples of the hydrosphere in the diagram: Hydrosphere Notes & Labels. On student brings up that animals are partly composed of water. I add on to his thinking by noting that one resource that I found reported that animals are about 70% water, humans are about 60% water, and plants are about 90% water. Many of my students LOVE learning tidbits of knowledge along the way. 


In a similar manner, we move on to discussing the geosphere: Geosphere Notes. As a side note, I explain: A rock is made up of 2 or more minerals. There are about 4,000 types of minerals on Earth. We use minerals in our daily lives. For example, aluminum is used to make buildings and cars and copper is used for electrical wiring and plumbing (pipes) in homes. Student excitedly point out examples of the geosphere in the diagram: Geosphere Notes & Labels.

I very briefly point out that the geosphere also includes each of the layers of the Earth: crust, upper mantle, mantle, outer core, and inner core. The goal is to provide an overview that can be built upon later. 

One student asks if soil is a part of the geosphere. This is a great opportunity to discuss the components of soil (on average): 45% minerals(geosphere), 25% water (hydrosphere), 5 % organic matter (biosphere), and later on, when we discuss the atmosphere, we'll add 25% air (atmosphere). I love how one student remembers (from our Ecosystems unit) and points out that minerals (such as phosphorus) are present in animals and plants! 


Students are now ready to learn about the last sphere, the atmosphere. We continue taking notes on the poster: Atmosphere Notes. We discuss that the atmosphere protects the biosphere as it keeps harmful ultraviolet rays out, but lets the sun's warming rays in (solar heat). Then, the class works together to identify examples of the atmosphere in the diagram (Completed Poster), such as gaseous factory emissions and wind (moving air). We also discuss the averaged components of air: 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen, 1% argon, and 0.4% carbon dioxide. One student says, "There's oxygen and carbon dioxide gases inside plants and animals too." 

Reflect & Apply

20 minutes

Sharing Findings

Now that students have built meaning and understanding by observing, questioning, and exploring, it is important to provide students with the opportunity to share their findings. For this reason, I invite students to observe how the spheres are present in a photograph: 

Google Documents

Each of my students has a google email account, so sharing documents that can be edited by students is quick and easy! At this time, I share the document, Earth Systems Picture Observation (in Google Documents). At this time, students grab their laptop computers from the cart and copy the document to make it their own editable version.

Picture Observation

To get students started, I ask: Who can identify an example of the biosphere? (trees) Can anyone find an example of the geosphere in this photo? (pavement) How about the hydrosphere? (snow) And the atmosphere? (water vapor forming clouds)

Then, teams of two students continue working together by discussing each of the spheres and completing their own observation pages.

Monitoring Student Understanding

Once students begin working, I conference with every group. My goal is to support students by asking guiding questions (listed below). I also want to encourage students to engage in Science & Engineering Practice 7: Engaging in Argument from Evidence

  1. What have you noticed? 
  2. Why do you suppose ____? 
  3. What have you found so far? 
  4. Has your thinking changed? 
  5. What evidence do you have? 
  6. How did you decide _____?
  7. What conclusion can you draw about ____?
  8. How is the ______ (sphere) connected to the _____ (sphere)?



During this conference, Conferencing with Students, the students continually refer to evidence of each sphere in the picture. This takes some inferring as well. For example, students infer that there must be a truck driver nearby (biosphere) and that the truck has been operating, releasing carbon dioxide emissions into the air (atmosphere). 

Student Work

Here are a few examples of student work during this time: