What Are We Coming Home To? (Part 1)

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SWBAT explain the potential impacts that the rise in global temperatures can have on the Earth and our way of life.

Big Idea

Students use their research skills to determine all of the ways that global warming can impact life on Earth.


Earth science is new for me this year and I have been finding it challenging to develop activities that I find exciting.  All of that changed for me when I downloaded a new exercise app called Zombies, Run!  (I love that inspiration comes from everywhere!  If you are a jogger, try this app.)  I got the idea that I could set the PBL unit in a type of post apocalyptic world that has been ravaged by global warming.  To take advantage of pop culture's current love for zombies, I thought I could infuse the release of an ancient virus due to the melting permafrost (this idea is based on the article I came across in Nature Giant Virus Resurrected From 30,000 Year Old Ice). For some reason, this unit plays out like a movie in my mind. It would be interesting to attempt to transform the classroom into a space ship and play the role of the captain for the duration of this unit but that is just a thought tickling the back of my mind at this point. 

The following student "directions" provide the gist of the unit without divulging everything.  This is taped onto the student tables when they walk in the room.  This is typically a strategy that I use when conducting a lab activity or simulation so this gets students' attention quickly.

You have been part of a research mission in space which may be the only thing that saved you from the fate that has befallen Earth.  Your team has just awoken from hyper-sleep when you hear the message that changes everything for you.

The problem you are facing is imminent: the Earth you remember no longer exists. Global warming has completely changed everything; the landscape, weather patterns, food and fuel supplies, even the human population - everything you have taken for granted has been impacted.  Your only clues as to what you are going home to are part of some mysterious videos that were forwarded to your ship while the crew was in hyper-sleep.  

No matter the state of the Earth, that is where you are headed.  Your ship is quickly running out of supplies.  You and your team must find a way to survive once you reach Earth, and trust me - that will be no easy task.

This unit has 3 main goals:

Goal 1: Determine the setting they are coming home to - what are the impacts of global warming on Earth and how does that affect our life/survival?

  • Research impacts of global warming on
    • human health (not only from rising temps but this is where students can look into the permafrost-virus connection)
    • crop production
    • weather events/ecosystem changes
    • energy/natural resources
  • Choose where to land ship.  Describe what you can expect of life in that area and justify your decision to land in that location.

Goal 2: Determine the causes of the warming (we can't change what is not understood).

  • Human activity
    • fossil fuel combustion
    • cement production
    • agriculture activity
  • Natural processes
    • changes in incoming solar radiation 
    • volcanic activity

Goal 3: Design a resilient, self-sustaining society that can withstand the challenges that will be faced by this new hostile environment.  Points to consider are:

  • Housing Structures/Safety
  • Energy
  • Transportation
  • Waste Management
  • Food Production
Each of these goals are introduced by a short video that sets the scene for the students (similar to the one found in the warm-up of this lesson...I apologize in advance for my poor acting skills! I strongly encourage you to create your own video...and send it to me!  This could be a fun project to have students in a tech or computer apps class work on improving in the future.)

The lessons that follow will guide students in accomplishing these goals and will target the MS-ESS3 performance expectations and the coordinating DCIs and CCCs.


15 minutes

Because this is the way I see this unit in my mind, I am going to write parts of the lesson from the perspective of a captain of the space mission talking to his crew.  Feel free to alter this to fit your style and personality. 

Greetings, crew.  As you know, our space mission was to find a place that was habitable to humans and set up a self-sustaining and resilient community in that location.  

This is a good time go over the meaning of self-sustaining (able to continue in a healthy state without outside assistance) and resilient (able to recoil or spring back into shape after bending, stretching, or being compressed) and what they mean in the context of developing a society.


30 minutes

Pose a few scenarios describing events that could compromise the stability of the local community. Have students work in small groups to discuss consequences that each crisis might have on their community and determine how self-sustaining and resilient the community (as they know it right now) would be if faced with such an event. Possible scenarios to discuss include:

  • Tornado
  • Earthquake
  • Drought
  • Alien invasion
  • Nuclear reactor accident
  • Invasive species (mutant birds or other GM organisms)
  • Cloned dinosaurs escape
  • Lack of fossil fuels
  • Sky high health care costs or public service costs (similar to one described in the popular book series Legend)
  • Chemical spill
  • Terror attack
  • The Dome (TV show based on a Stephen King book)

Encourage students to think about all the systems that drive a community such as:

  • Food
  • Energy
  • Transportation
  • Education
  • Waste
  • Recreation
  • Housing
  • Decision making
  • Health care

Have each group share their responses with the class.  After each group presents their work, it is interesting to point out the similarities in the impacts of the different crises.


10 minutes

While our mission in space was not a success, it seems that our mission has not reached its conclusion.  I received a disturbing transmission from Earth.  Watch closely and be prepared to debrief and brainstorm following this message.

As you can see, the message cut out before the lieutenant could complete the warning - the question is, where do we go from here? 

Students can ask questions or generate ideas.  The goal is to lead them to the conclusion that the first set of information that is needed is to determine what the state of the Earth might be and what might have been released from the permafrost.  I let the level and personalities of my classes determine how much guidance comes from me.  This will be developed further in the next lesson.