I am a big fan of NASA's educational materials. I wrote previously about using a lesson from Mission Mathematics as part of problem solving in math. NASA also has an excellent geography curriculum, Mission Geography, which is available free on the NASA website. They have created different curricula for grades K-4, 5-8, and 9-12. Teaching a gifted 4th grade class, I have used units from both the K-4 and 5-8 bands.
My class has just completed Investigation 1 in the unit "Mars and Earth - the Quest for Life." This is part of the 5-8 units. Investigation 1 is "Where do we choose to live and why?" This is a question our 4th graders have been exploring for the entire school year in Social Studies, beginning with the early English colonies. In an earlier blog post I shared the lesson plan from Colonial Williamsburg in which students are charged with examining the characteristics of several potential settlement sites, ranking them according to different criteria, and defending their choices of site. Later in the year, we saw the importance of waterways as transportation in the French and Indian War. We noted in colonial times leading up to the Revolutionary War that the colonies were all on the Atlantic coast and the major cities were all ports.
"Where do we choose to live and why?" reinforces these aspects of geography in history and brings the ideas into the present. In the first activity, Students are introduced to the concepts of patterns, dispersion and density in populations. Then students are given a satellite photo of New England at night, so what you see are the lights of human activity. The photo is not identified, so the first task students have is to identify from it was taken, what time of day it was, and what it is. There are a number of questions to answer about what can be seen in the photo, including, what are the completely dark areas (water), what patterns do you observe, and finally, what cities, water bodies, and other features can you identify. In my experience using this for a few year now, students usually need some scaffolding in understanding the concepts of pattern and dispersion when talking about human population, so I give additional examples beyond what Mission Geography offers. I also have students work in partners to have someone to discuss the questions with.
In the second activity, students receive a photo of the continental United States (and parts of Canada and Mexico), but it has been turned into a puzzle, being cut into eight rectangles. Their job is to reassemble it using their mental map of the country, with the night lights of cities as the guide. Most students can easily identify the east coast, and often California and Texas with the Gulf of Mexico The center of the country is the challenge. At this point I encourage students to use an atlas, look for the major cities, and assemble the country from those clues. There is a more extensive set of questions to answer after putting the country together. Some questions ask students to think about why there are no cities in parts of the continent. Using an atlas, they discover that the more empty portions of the country are mountains and deserts. They also use a plastic overlay and markers to outline the U.S. and highlight certain features. This is always a popular part of the activity! I collect the clear plastic from the ends of laminating to use as the overlays.
So far these activities have been a cooperative effort, working with partners, and then discussing answers as a whole class. The final activity in this section is applying everything they have learned to determine where people would settle on an unidentified satellite photo of Australia. This photo is a color image designating elevation. I have been disappointed in past years when I taught this lesson because my students had difficulty in successfully picking logical places to settle. They would often pick a place in the middle of Australia, rather than the coastlines, even though we has been discussing this for most of the school year. I decided that part of the problem was with a lack of scale. Though many of my students recognized that it was Australia, they didn't have a clear idea of how big the country/continent is. So this year I gave them the area and the distance north to south and east to west. Another possible issue is the color code for elevation uses a deep green for the lowest elevation, which may give a mistaken impression of lush forests. Students had frequently chosen the center of Australia as a good place to settle, while in reality is is about a thousand miles from the coastline and a desert. This year I went over the color code carefully.
I had students begin work alone and after about 15 or 20 minutes offered them a chance to partner up and share their ideas. This gave me time to walk around checking on understanding and misconceptions before they worked together. I was very pleased with the results of these tweaks. Almost all of my students demonstrated understanding of what people look for in a settlement, as well as the types of places people tend to live.
NASA's Mission Geography gives context to geographical concepts and allows students to apply them. Students are required to think and use what they know. There are many more units than the ones I use - I wish I had more time to teach geography!