Modeling Earth's Systems

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SWBAT create a model that represents all four of Earth's systems and how they interact.

Big Idea

Students work in groups to create a diorama with representations from all of Earth's systems that demonstrates at least one way they all interact.

Rationale and Preparation

The Why Behind Teaching This 

Unit 5 covers standards relating to Earth's Systems.  It covers Standard 5-ESS2-1: Develop a model using an example to describe ways the geosphere, biosphere, hydrosphere, and/or atmosphere interact.  Students will be learning the difference between each of the systems, and ways that each of the systems interact to help make Earth what it is today.  The other standard covered is Standard 5-ESS2-2: Describe and graph the amounts and percentages of water and fresh water in various reservoirs to provide evidence about the distribution of water on Earth. 

Modeling will be an important component of this unit.  Students will be modeling layers of Earth, the water cycle, land forms, and more.  The unit begins with an overview of all the systems, then each system is taught in isolation.  As each new system is covered, how it depends on or interacts with the previous systems will be addressed.  In addition to the end of unit assessment, there will also be a culminating activity where groups build a model to demonstrate how 2 of the systems interact.  Connections to several previously covered standards will also be made throughout this unit.

This specific lesson is a culminating activity to wrap up what was learned throughout unit 5.  The lesson is directly linked to standard 5-ESS2-1 by having students create a 3D model which includes each of the four Earth Systems and a representation of how they interact.  Students have learned details about each system throughout this unit and will make the connection to how they interact by creating this model. 

Lesson Goal:

The goal of this lesson is for students to work together in groups to create a diorama of a climate zone that incorporates parts of the geosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere, and biosphere.  The diorama should also include an example of how the systems interact. 

Success Criteria: 

Students will be scored on proficiency through a rubric, as well as through peer evaluation.  They will demonstrate mastery of the standard if they meet the proficiency standard as stated on the rubric, and receive all positive scores on the peer evaluation.  

Preparing For The Lesson:

*Note: This lesson was written as a one day activity taking 2 hours.  If you do not have 2 hours in your day to spend on science, you can split it up between two days, completing the warm up, guided practice, and beginning the explore section the first day, then allowing groups to finish their projects and present them on the second day.  

Warm Up:

Guided Practice:

Students will be explaining their card from the sentence cards used in the warm up.  No other materials are needed. 


Wrap Up:  

Warm Up

10 minutes

Matching Game 

I provide each student with one card from the Earth System Sentence Cards, each containing part of a sentence that describes a way that all of Earth's Systems interact.  The students must walk around and read each others cards and try to find the cards that fit together to create a sentence.  All of the sentences are ways that the systems interact. The complete sentences formed by the cards are below:  

  • A river flowing quickly after a big storm erodes rock, widening the river, causing animals that live near the river to have to move to new locations. 
  • A satellite circles the Earth, takes pictures of a hurricane forming over the ocean, and sends the pictures back down to scientists who warn the people living in its path to prepare for beach erosion and flooding.  
  • A city along the coast of California gets a lot of rain as the warm, moist air is pushed up over the mountains, while few plants and animals survive on the other, much drier, side of the mountain. 
  • Volcanoes that erupt from the ocean floor can create new land, which becomes home to many plants and animals who depend on water from the water cycle, and air in the atmosphere to survive.     
  • While the temperatures in hot, dry deserts is very different then that in cold deserts, the amount of precipitation and water available is very low, which means plants in both areas need similar adaptations to survive.  

After passing out one card to each student, I have them all stand up at their desk and push in their chairs.  I tell them that they have to try and find the four cards that fit together to form a sentence that includes all four systems.  Students circulate to read each others cards and begin piecing together sentences.  As you can see in the video of students trying to match sentence cards, all students are up moving around, engaged in the activity.  

As groups began piecing together sentences I had them stand together on the perimeter of the room.  As soon as I saw a group of four standing together I checked their sentence.  If I do not check their sentences and they are wrong, other groups may never fit together correctly.  If I notice an error, I just remove that part of the sentence and go find the correct card.  This helps save time in sending the other three students, that do have correct parts in the sentence, back into the group.    

Guided Practice

10 minutes

Discussing the Earth System Sentence Cards 

After finding the matches to create a sentence about Earth's Systems, students line up holding their cards in order. I have each group read their sentence out loud to the rest of the class.  You can see how this is done in the video of students sharing their earth system sentence and in video 2 of students sharing their Earth system sentence

Then, after reading the sentence, I have each student in the group read just their part of the sentence and identify what is representing the system listed.  For example, one card labeled as the hydrosphere says "A river flowing quickly".  The student with this card reads the card, then says the river is part of the hydrosphere because it is water on Earth.  Another card labeled as atmosphere says "A satellite that circles the Earth".  The student with this card would read their card, then say the satellite circles earth in a layer of the atmosphere.  

By having the students read each card individually and then identify the connection to the system, I am better able to assess understanding of the individual students.  By having them do this, I am able to correct any misconceptions and explain parts in more detail.  It also allows for all students in the class to hear the other completed sentences and provides them all with several examples of how the systems interact, which will help them with their models later.  This activity also serves as a way to group students.  They will remain in these groups for building the models. 

Another way to assess understanding could be to have another student, not in the group, to point out how each of the four systems are represented in each sentence and then call on other students to identify how 2 systems are interacting in the sentence.  In this format, students are explaining another groups sentence instead of their own card. 


90 minutes

Modeling How Systems Interact

Students remain in the groups they formed to create the sentences.  These are the groups working together to create models of how systems interact.  

I explain to the groups that they will be working together to create a model called a diorama.  I hold up a box and explain that a diorama is a 3D model that includes a background in the box, and then 3D objects filling the box.  These objects could be things such as figures of plants or animals, clouds hanging from the top, or mounds of clay built up like mountains on the bottom.   

I place a copy of the Earth System Model Rubric on the overhead and go over it with the class.  I point out that the goal of the lesson is to create a model that accurately represents the geosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere, and biosphere in a given climate zone, including at least one way they interact.  The climate zone that they choose to do must be one of the three we learned about in our climate zone lesson.  I pull down my world map and point out the equator.  I review what climate zone is located in areas around the equator (tropical), then farther north and south of the equator (temperate), and finally the climate zone near the north and south poles (polar).   They will get to choose which climate zone to model, but I would like at least one from each area so once their group decides they must tell me which they are doing.  I want at least one from each climate zone because my intention is to stack them on top of each other.  I explain that for students to earn exemplary on this activity, their groups must meet the requirements for proficiency with no help, plus write a written explanation about their diorama and how the systems are interacting. 

I show the bottom of the rubric which contains a group member evaluation.  I explain that I will be observing group participation but all members will also reflect on the role that others had in the project.  If a student receives 2 negative marks in any area, they will not earn proficient.  Completing this project is only one way students can earn proficiency on this standard.  They will have another opportunity on the unit assessment. 

I answer questions before passing out a box to each group and letting them get started.  After going over the rubric, they have about 80 minutes to complete their model.  I have construction paper, paint, cotton balls, clay, animal figures, etc, set out as materials they can use.  They are also allowed to use the computer to print pictures if they choose to do so.  This is one video of group working together to build earth system model.  You can see that groups are spread out around the room and everyone in the group is busy working on something for the model.  I did split this into two days to allow groups to bring things in from home such as animal toys, etc., or print picture in color at home.  I gave them a little time the following day to add finishing touches. 

Wrap Up

10 minutes

Sharing Models 

After about 90 minutes of working on the models, I have groups present their models and identify each system and explain how they are interacting.  The group that created the model below describes it as a tropical climate zone. They identify the following components: 

  • Geosphere - volcano 
  • Hydrosphere - river 
  • Atmosphere - Air surrounding it all and the storm
  • Biosphere - Trees, Flowers, Animals 

For how the systems interact, they say that the volcano erupting kills animals (geosphere - biosphere).  They also say that the storm adds water to the river (atmosphere - hydrosphere).  Another interaction they points out is that the animals drink the water in the river to survive (hydrosphere - biosphere).  


 The group that created the model below describes it as an arctic climate zone.  They described the components representing each system as:

  • Hydrosphere - ocean 
  • Biosphere - Whale 
  • Atmosphere - Snow falling from the sky 
  • Geosphere - the ground the snow is sitting on 

This group was unsure about what they intended to represent the geosphere and after a little delay and discussion, they came up with the ground that the snow is sitting on.  The only interaction they describe, during their presentation, is the whale swimming in the ocean (biosphere - hydrosphere).   


Data Results 

After presenting, I pass out a copy of the Earth System Model Group Member Evaluation to each student.  I have group member names already written at the top for them.  After completing the evaluation for each group member, they turn it in to me.  I record the results on each individual student rubric  but do not include names so students do not know who game them the scores they did.  I do this so that students are able to see how they were rated by their peers, but without causing any issues.  

The majority of students wrote positive things about all group members.  When I transferred this over and added in whether their met the standard or not, most rubrics and evaluation forms looked like those below.  Only one grouped earned the exemplary mark though, all others earned proficient.


There was one group however, that seemed to have some issues with one student.  All three group members that worked with this student mark him as not helping and not getting along well with others.  I did notice this as I observed groups but every time I would walk over he would begin doing something to look like he was helping.  Allowing students to evaluate each other helps me identify which students I need further assessment information on before giving them a proficient marking.  Allowing your group members to do everything does not earn you proficiency.  The rubrics and evaluation for this group are below.  This is the only student that I had to speak with and give an additional assignment to so he could still have the opportunity to earn proficient.



I only had one group write a description of how all systems interact.  This groups consisted of one high level student and two ESE students.  I called each member of the group over individually after reading through the description and asked each student to explain how all of the systems interact.  The high level student told me almost word for word what was in the written description so it was evident that she had written it.  I was very happy to hear that the other two students were also able to tell me how all systems interact but maybe not exactly what was written in the report.  They had truly all planned and worked together on this project and spent so much time talking about it, they all had a clear understanding of what represented each system and how they interact with each other.