Are humans on the verge of collapse? (2 of 3)

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During this second of a three lesson sequence, students will be able to 1) develop a claim about the potential collapse of human society; 2) critically respond to other students' claims with counterclaims; and 3) evaluate a claim by applying the IPAT equation

Big Idea

The growing human population threatens the stability of Earth. How might we understand how human population growth and consumption patterns influence the environment in order to design more sustainable human development?

FRAME: Predicting future populations

Can the human species escape the influence of density-dependent limiting factors forever? The purpose of the "Are humans on the verge of collapse?" lesson sequence is for students to refine the skills and concepts developed during this unit through assessment of the future of the human population. What is the current population growth model of humans? How has human growth changed over time? How do visualized data tools such as survivorship curves and population pyramids help us understand the past and predict the future?

The first lesson introduces students to Jared Diamond's idea of collapse.  Why do some human civilizations fail?  How can the past help us to assess the susceptibility of modern societies to collapse? What does data say about the current state of the world?  Students first examine data visualizations to get a basic framework for exploring the idea of collapse. Then, students explore case studies to better understand this question and share out initial understanding with peers.  

The second lesson pushes students to engage in more intellectually rigorous dialogue through a "Post-it and Roast it" activity.  Students also develop an understanding of the conceptual IPAT equation to support their analysis of human consumption.  The lesson ends with students developing an argument for or against the idea that the population of the United States will collapse in the future.  These arguments are necessary practice for the CAPSTONE project and will be refined during the third lesson.

Finally, in the third lesson, students hold a peer-mediated debate exploring the idea that "Americans use too much."  This work extends to a critical analysis of The Story of Stuff that pushes students to develop a nuanced claim about the impact of the human population on the natural world. As an assessment, students either develop a creative obituary for a natural product or critiques a solution idea proposed by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment.  

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

  1. identify factors that might contribute to the collapse of societies
  2. accurately interpret data visualizations of human population growth over time
  3. explain how human populations impact the planet through in-depth case study exploration
  4. develop a claim about the potential collapse of human society;
  5. critically respond to other students' claims with counterclaims
  6. evaluate a claim by applying the IPAT equation
  7. engage in evidence-based debate with peers
  8. assess the quality of debate arguments presented
  9. evaluate an argument against current consumption patterns
  10. develop prototype solutions to problems posed by current human consumption patterns.

RESOURCE NOTE: The attached PROTOTYPE ACTIVITY GUIDE might be modified by educators for classroom use.

FLIPPED: Are you typical?

What is the purpose of this section?

Students compare themselves with the "typical human." By the end of this section students should be able to explain what they have in common with the "typical human." Students should also be able to suggest ways that lifestyle choices in different populations impact the population pyramid of that country.

What will students do? 

Students watch this National Geographic presentation of the "typical human" and answer the reflection questions in italics:

Reflection questions:

  • How do you compare to the world's most typical person?
  • How do you think regional differences in the most typical person influences population pyramids?


WARM UP: Data viz quiz

8 minutes

What is the purpose of this section?

Students practice data interpretation skills.  The teacher assesses students ability to correctly interpret data visualizations as well as students ability to appropriately identify the implications of these interpretations.

What will students do?

Students will independently take the quiz (also linked in the Resources section) described in the attached resource and answer the following in addition to each of the five questions: how might this information help us determine factors that cause the collapse of human societies?

What will the teacher do?

The teacher will ask students to describe solutions to each question in front of the whole class and will explicitly model solution ideas when there is an identified need in the class.  Needs might include:

Essentially, then, this portion of the lesson parallels the data interpretation from the previous lesson and allows for the teacher to gather formative assessment data.  Do students make the same mistakes?  Are students exhibiting new misconceptions?  Is the class ready to move on to more data interpretation?

EXPLAIN: Post-it and Roast it

15 minutes

What is the purpose of this section?

Students are able to finish their independent explorations from the previous day and have a silent, interactive discussion about their work. The teacher is able to assess student's ability to apply understandings from independent explorations of human impact on Earth to New York City.

What will do students do?

Students will engage in a "Post-it and Roast-it!" activity.  Four stations are set up around the room.  Each consists of a uniquely colored pack of Post-its, two pieces of chart paper, and directions.   Students will describe a takeaway from the previous activity and the implications of this takeaway.  Students will also critically respond to two other students' post.  This is a variation of "plus and delta"; students must more rigorously define the delta by questioning another student's ideas, and there is no plus.  (At this point in the year I am encouraging my students to be less nice and more critical, in an academically appropriate manner of course.)

What will the teacher do?

My key teacher move is to actively engage in "Post-it and Roast-it" by creating "Post-its" and relentlessly "Roasting" students.  I try to provide a comment to every student, but this generally only works in groups of no more than 20 students.

Some other tips for implementation include:

  • Encourage students to develop a Post-it for any station that they explored (see attached student handout for stations). 
  • Remind students that "finish" early to check "Roast-it" comments made by other students.  Students should use these comments to improve their work.
  • Spend the first few minutes reading Post-it and Roast-it comments.  Stop the class if students are completely off the mark.  This may require a mini-lesson that explicitly teaches how to create these types of comments.
  • Make notes of student "blind spots."  What do students not understand about this material?  When do students fail to correct obvious errors with their "Roast-it" comments?
  • Facilitate a debrief session of this activity if doing so aligns with student needs.  If there are a lot of errors or you spot the same type of mistake frequently, a debrief can help to assess students' ability to spot errors.  It also provides another opportunity for direct, corrective instruction.

What is the attached resource?

This is a sample of the directions that I used this year.

ELABORATE: IPAT and Americans' consumption

15 minutes

What is the purpose of this section?

Students will learn about the conceptual IPAT eqaution and apply it to human consumption patterns in America.  (I is environmental impact; P is population size; A is affluence; and T is technology.  The equation is I=PAT.) The teacher is able model appropriate use of the IPAT equation and gather formative assessment data.  What else could be done to help student understand and apply this equation to analysis of human populations? 

What will students do?

Ideally, the whole class will work through student-generated examples of IPAT.  The goal is for each student to explain how a change in one variable will change the others. This year, students started with a class example, and then moved to student-generated examples.

First, students watched this short IPAT presentation and define each variable in the equation. 

Second, students together applied the IPAT equation to their personal lives.   What is the environmental impact of a typical New York City adolescent? They did this by examining the relationships among population, affluence, and technology.  The population was simply the students in the school.  Affluence was measured by estimating personal daily consumption patterns for a variety of resources.  These included:

  • Agricultural (food, food distribution)

  • Consumer goods (electronics, clothes)

  • Infrastructure (subway, sidewalks)

  • Water (drinking, bathing)

  • Energy (electricity, batteries)

Finally, students took into technology into account.  If the population of Sunset Park doubles suddenly, how might we use technology to maintain current levels of human impact? 

What will the teacher do?

My primary role in this activity was to model how changes in variables in the IPAT equation influence human impact. The key to using this equation is to understand how one variable impacts the others.   To do this, I mostly asked probing questions to catalyze student insights.

These might include:

  • Do populations use more resources as they get larger?
  • How do people use their money?
  • Does technology help the environment or hurt the environment.
  • If population increases, how do other variables need to change to keep human impact the same?

Ultimately, my goal is to support every student in understanding how each of the three variables (PAT) affect human impact (I).

Additionally, teachers should encourage students to generate scenarios from their other classes and apply IPAT to those scenarios.  This year, students generated examples from United States history (slavery and the years prior to the Declaration of Independence were popular) and literature (The Great Gatsby was popular this year).  Analyzing Fitzgerald's famous "Valley of the Ashes" through IPAT was an exciting experience for students and forged a strong and authentic interdisciplinary connection.

NOTE: The most common student misconception is that IPAT must have numbers.  It is crucial for teachers to frame IPAT as a "conceptual equation."  This means that the purpose of IPAT is primarily to demonstrate the relationships that exist among variables.  IPAT is not used to solve for specific numerical values.

What other resources might be used to teach and learn IPAT?

Two readings are attached as resources.  The first is one that students could examine instead of the short video.  The second is probably better for teachers that want to study IPAT in greater depth; it might also be used for a curious student after mastering the basics of the equation.

EVALUATE: Trial by jury

12 minutes

What is the purpose of this section?

Students use IPAT to develop arguments for or against the idea that Americans use too many resources; students selected for a jury will research both types of arguments.  The teacher can support students' application of IPAT to a real-world scenario.

What will student do?

Students begin work for a short debate competition that is the primary learning activity for the next lesson.  First, students are randomly assigned to one of three groups: for, against, or jury.  Next, all groups learn about the format for the debate:

  • The FOR group will research information that supports the statement. Students must identify sources.  All group members will synthesize research into an opening argument of three minutes to be delivered in front of the class.  This argument must include an IPAT equation as part of its argument.
  • The AGAINST group will do the same for the opposite position. The opening argument for the against group does not yet respond to claims made by the FOR group.  This argument must include an IPAT equation as part of its argument.
  • The JURY develops argument for both sides.  These arguments must include the IPAT equation.  Members of this group actively assess the opening arguments of both sides.  The strongest students in a class should be in this group as it has the most complex task.  
  • After each side has made an opening argument, each side will have five minutes to craft a rebuttal.  The rebuttal can be up to two minutes and will respond to claims made by the other side.
  • Next, the JURY will deliberate.  The for and against groups may listen to the deliberations, but may not respond. The jury may ask up to three follow questions to each group.
  • Finally, the jury makes a judgment.  Do Americans use too many resources?  The jury will decide "yes" or "no" and support this decision with an explanation of the arguments and evidence that were essential to this verdict.

Finally, each group prepares an argument that critically evaluates this statementAmericans use too many resources.  Students are encouraged to use CK-12 as content search engine for this process.  (A fuller explanation for this choice can be found in the reflection.)

What will the teacher do?

The teacher will moderate this process and gather assessment data.  The purpose of this section is for students to develop evidence-based arguments for or against a position.  As such, this activity is an excellent opportunity for teachers to measure student progress towards mastery of reading, writing, speaking, and listening Common Core Learning Standards.  Teachers will most likely support students by helping to find appropriate resources and to model IPAT equations.


5 minutes

What is the purpose of this section?

Opposing sides offer a "teaser" of their opening argument so that students can make their arguments better by incorporating counterclaims.  The teacher can check for student understanding of the material and follow up with students that have misconceptions or make errors.

What will students do?

Each side shares a one sentence summary of its claim.  Students are assigned to finish the opening argument for homework.  This is a "pre-evaluate" activity.  Students will use this work in the opening statements they give in the next lesson.

What will the teacher do?

This is an opportunity to collect data about students' initial arguments.  I will use this data to push resources that students will find useful through email or Edmodo.  Additionally, I have an opportunity to provide quick feedback to students and remind them that they will need to finalize their three minute opening arguments before the next class.