Coal and the Environment

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Students will be able to explain some of the effects that coal mining and use has on the environment.

Big Idea

Coal is a natural resource people depend on that has an effect on the quality of the natural environment.

Optional Resources and Lesson Overview

1 minutes

Today students will explore several passages that examine the effects of coal mining on the environment.  I make it clear that these are a few examples and that there are many environmental impact studies in which the coal agencies state that they will reclaim the area and the effects on wildlife and the environment will be minor to moderate, and short-term.  (For example, this study). I have built this lesson based on a lifetime about reading about mining and the knowledge that, while some companies truly do try to reclaim areas and have had some success, the overall impact of coal mining and coal use continues to be very harmful to the environment.  

This lesson ties together the 4th grade standard of recognizing that the harvesting and use of natural resources affects the environment with the 3rd grade standard of recognizing that some animals can adapt to changes, and some can not.  Both of these lines of inquiry are emphasized in the study study guides.

Here is a video about "rat-hole" mining in India, conducted by children and the poorest of the poor. My students participate in a unit on global citizenship but the choice to discuss this issues with young students is an individual choice and dependent on your particular class.

This powerful documentary about air pollution in China is very informative, and will provide you with more background if you are interested.

Engage: Ideas Through Images

15 minutes

I show students these images of coal mining and use to get them thinking again about how coal mining changes the environment.  This is a complex, multi-layered topic.  

  • As they look at these images, I ask them to think about the following questions:
  • What was the environment like before it was mined?
  • How has it changed?
  • Do you think that underground mining has less of an effect since we cannot see the changes above-ground?  Why or why not?
  • How do the pictures of mining in the United States (long-seam mining) look different from the few images of mining in India at the end of the presentation?
  • What happens to the animals and the plants when there is a surface mine?
  • Environmental studies are conducted to determine the effects on plants and animals and in the United States companies are required to rehabilitate the land.  Sometimes this works, often it does not.  What do you think about this?

Explore: Coal Mining and the Environment

30 minutes

During this part of the lesson, students will read  about Surface Coal Mining and Wildlife while taking notes using the organizer I've provided.  I want them to focus on the most important details (the flower icon), unanswered questions with an emphasis on overarching concepts though relevant specific questions are also, of course, acceptable (the question mark icon) and ethics (the diamond icon).  Their understanding of ethics at this age is limited by the emotional and cognitive development but as we all know, third graders are very capable of expressing beliefs about what they feel to be right and wrong.  In the context of this article, I encourage them to jot down a few notes about this and then the challenge is to explain why the issue they agree or disagree with takes place, and to hypothesize solutions.


Exit Ticket - "West Virginia Coal Tree"

14 minutes

I show students this West Virginia Coal Tree.doc and ask them to read silently for a moment.  Then we read the words together, using basic phonics to sound out unfamiliar words.  Then I ask them to jot down 5 things they know that they use, either directly or indirectly, and 5 things they think they'd be willing to give up.  I also am clear in explaining that the exact role coal plays in the manufacturing of all these items is beyond the scope of a 3rd or 4th grade lesson.  I know, for example, that it is a direct ingredient of roof tar and pavement.  I would have to do further research to find out how coal is related to lipstick, medicine, and soda.  I model these kinds of questions, and the importance of not claiming to know something I haven't researched, because these are important qualities for my young budding scientists to start to practice.  

Supplemental Discussion - The Human Cost of Coal

20 minutes

This amazing, short, photojournalism piece provides a deeper look at the life of the people working in the coal mines of India.  I highly recomment that you read: Robb Kendrick: Life in India’s Coal Mines