What is Happening to Polar Bears? Real Data, Claims, and Evidence

Looking for a way to incorporate real data into your science class? Or maybe you want to work on evidence-based claims and reasoning. Perhaps you need an engaging way to tackle the subject of climate change. This lesson uses polar bears and sea ice data to promote critical thinking within the context of an important current event.

Lesson Objectives

  1. Students will be able to visually represent data by creating meaningful graphs.
  2. Students will make claims based on graphical evidence and support those claims with evidence-based reasoning.

National Science Education Standards

This lesson closely aligns with three of the Science Content Standards of the National Science Education Standards (NSES): Science as Inquiry, Life Science, and Science in Personal and Social Perspectives.

Science as Inquiry: Abilities Necessary to do Scientific Inquiry (Grades 5-8)

  • Use appropriate tools and techniques to gather, analyze, and interpret data.
  • Develop descriptions, explanations, predictions, and models using evidence.
  • Think critically and logically to make the relationships between evidence and explanations.
  • Recognize and analyze alternative explanations and predictions.
  • Communicate scientific procedures and explanations.

Life Science: Populations and Ecosystems (Grades 5-8)

  • Lack of resources and other factors, such as predation and climate, limit the growth of populations in specific niches in the ecosystem.

Science in Personal and Social Perspectives: Natural Hazards (Grades 5-8)

  • Human activities also can induce hazards…Such activities can accelerate many natural changes.


Begin the lesson by showing footage of polar bears in Hudson Bay with wildlifeHD’s Polar Bear Cam. Conduct a brief class discussion to elicit prior knowledge about the bears. Next, share some facts about polar bears with students, such as:

  • So far this fall, tour operators and scientists have reported at least four and perhaps up to eight cases of mature males eating cubs and other bears in the population around Churchill, Manitoba. (From Hungry polar bears resorting to cannibalism, December 3, 2009)
  • There are increased bear-human interactions, increased numbers of bears on shore, and bears staying on shore for longer periods of time in the Canadian Arctic. (From Can You Bear It? Churchill a Polar Pioneer, November 18, 2009)
  • The IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group has listed eight of 19 polar bear subpopulations as currently decreasing, three as stable, and one as increasing. For seven, data were insufficient to assign a trend. (From Polar Bear Status Report, July 6, 2009)

You may wish to share the facts orally, list them on the board or on a PowerPoint slide, or create mock headlines for students to read. Ask students to discuss the facts in small groups, and come up with explanations for the facts (or headlines). Conduct a class discussion to share students’ explanations, and record and post them in a central location.


Next, group students into teams of 4 or 5 for an Idea Circle about polar bears. In an idea circle, each student reads a nonfiction (informational) text of their own choosing on a particular subject (in this case, polar bears). As each student selects his own text, a variety of reading levels and formats are represented within each small group and within the class. Ideally, no two students read the same text. Idea circles are an excellent strategy for differentiated instruction and a wonderful opportunity to incorporate children’s literature into a middle school classroom.

For an idea circle on polar bears, we’ve suggested titles from the Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears virtual bookshelves, including:

  • Ice Bear: In the Steps of the Polar Bear. Nicola Davies. 2005.
  • Life Cycle of a Polar Bear. Rebecca Sjonger and Bobbie Kalman. 2006.
  • Baby Polar Bear. Aubrey Lang. 2008.
  • Why Don’t Polar Bears Have Stripes? Katherine Smith. 2004.
  • A Polar Bear Journey. Debbie S. Miller. 2005.
  • Polar Bears: Arctic Hunters. Norman Pearl. 2009.
  • Ice Bears. Brenda Z. Guiberson. 2008.
  • Polar Bear Alert! Debora Pearson. 2007.
  • Polar Bears. Amazing Animals Series. Gail Gibbons. 2009.
  • 101 Facts About Polar Bears. Julia Barnes. 2004.

Your librarian or media specialist will be able to recommend other nonfiction titles as well.

After students read their individual texts, they share what they’ve learned with their small group, completing a graphic organizer in the process. Next, conduct another whole-class discussion and record information on a large chart displayed in a central location. Ask students to revisit their explanations from the “Engage” phase, clarifying and revising as needed.


In this phase of the lesson, students will work with real data to better understand the role of sea ice loss in changing polar bear populations. The Windows to the Universe lesson Graphing Sea Ice Extent in the Arctic and Antarctic provides up-to-date sea ice data and clear procedures for the lesson. You may wish to deal only with the Arctic data if your focus is on polar bear populations.

Graphing Sea Ice Extent in the Arctic and Antarctic
Students graph sea ice extent (area) in both polar regions (Arctic and Antarctica) over a three-year period to learn about seasonal variations and over a 25-year period to learn about longer-term trends.

Once students have completed their graphs, they will analyze the data and make evidence-based claims that explain why polar bear populations are changing. You may wish to use a graphic organizer to scaffold students’ work with claims, evidence, and reasoning. You may also wish to model this process if students are unfamiliar or unpracticed with these concepts.

At this time, you may choose to conduct another whole-class discussion to share claims, evidence, and reasoning. Student graphs and claims/evidence/reasoning graphic organizers serve as assessment for this lesson (see “Assess,” below).

Assess (Evaluate)

Class discussion during the “Engage” phase of the lesson can serve as a source of formative assessment. Additionally, observation of student behavior during the lessons’ activities can be used as an assessment tool.

Formal (summative) assessment for this lesson includes evaluating student graphs and claims, evidence, and reasoning using rubrics. In addition, you may also choose to assess student understanding of polar bear characteristics and populations.


Extend this lesson by introducing global climate change and albedo. The following resources may be helpful as you plan extension activities.

Graphing Thermal Expansion of Water and Greenhouse Gases
Two activities have students create graphs of concentrations of greenhouse gases and observe the thermal expansion of water. You may choose to have students also plot global temperatures as well as greenhouse gas concentrations to help them see the correlation between the two.

The Shiniest Moon
This nonfiction article is written for use with students in grades 4 and up. Students learn about two of Saturn’s moons, albedo, the relationship between heat absorption and temperature, and how decreasing sea ice in the Arctic actually contributes to further melting. The article is offered in various formats and reading levels, and related activities are suggested.

Other Related Resources

Create a Graph
Students will learn how to create area, bar, pie, and line graphs. They are provided with information about what each type of graph shows and what it can be used for. Students are given an example of each type of graph, but they can create graphs using their own data in the interactive tool.

WWF-Canon Polar Bear Tracker
For the last 5 years or so, the WWF-Canon Polar Bear Tracker has followed polar bears in the Arctic. Their positions are beamed from collars on the bears’ necks, via satellite to scientists, and then to this website. It allows us to get regular updates about how the polar bears behave in their arctic environment and how they may be affected by climate change. The site also includes multimedia and a kid’s zone.

Dot Earth
Follow climate-related news (including the latest from the climate talks in Copenhagen) with this New York Times blog.

We Want Your Feedback

We want and need your ideas, suggestions, and observations. What would you like to know more about? What questions have your students asked? We invite you to share with us and other readers by posting your comments. Please check back often for our newest posts or download the RSS feed for this blog. Let us know what you think and tell us how we can serve you better. We appreciate your feedback on all of our Middle School Portal 2 publications. You can also email us at msp@msteacher.org.

This post was originally written by Jessica Fries-Gaither and published December 16, 2009 in the Connecting News to the National Science Education Standards blog. The post was updated 3/27/12 by Jessica Fries-Gaither.

Citizen Science Projects

I came across this post – 12 Days of Christmasy Citizen Science Projects – and thought I would share some of my favorite Citizen Science Projects. One thing to remember – just because the word “science” is in the title doesn’t mean that these projects won’t fit into the middle school math curriculum. Many of these projects provide data sets that can be analyzed in a variety of ways!

If you would like to suggest other projects, please add them to the comments section.

Measure rain, snow, and hail:
CoCoRaHS (Community Collaborative Rain, Hail, & Snow)

Track when leaves grow and flowers bloom in the spring:
National Phenology Network

Project Budburst

Observe migrating patterns:
National Audubon Society

Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Monarch Butterfly Studies

National Phenology Network

Monitor invasive species:

We Want Your Feedback
We want and need your ideas, suggestions, and observations. What would you like to know more about? What questions have your students asked? We invite you to share with us and other readers by posting your comments. Please check back often for our newest posts, subscribe via email, or download the RSS feed for this blog. Let us know what you think and tell us how we can serve you better. We appreciate your feedback on all of our Middle School Portal 2 publications. You can also email us at msp@msteacher.org.

Celebrate Women’s History Month with STEM Stories

The STEM Stories website features a growing collection of digital resources that highlight the lives and work of individuals involved in STEM fields (mainly women). It combines compelling personal stories and multimedia to interest intermediate and middle school students in STEM subjects and careers.

From the In the Spotlight menu, you’ll meet 10 present-day women who are featured in depth, with interviews, photo albums and more.  They include dolphin communication researcher Diana Reiss, atmospheric chemist Susan Solomon, biologist and astronaut Millie Hughes-Fulford, and robotics engineer Heather Knight. (Heather helped work on the Rube Goldberg machine sequence for the OK-Go music video This Too Shall Pass).  On the Clips tab, the database includes short videos that introduce individuals working in varied STEM careers.  The Profiles tab lets you search biographies about women working in STEM fields throughout history.  Some include photo albums, such as Mary Pennington, Rachel Carson, and Virginia Apgar. (Tip:  double-click on images to see a larger view).

The project team, headed by Lois McLean and Rick Tessman (McLean Media) created STEM Stories with girls in mind, drawing on design ideas from an after-school club for at-risk middle and high school girls. In a 2010 pilot, more than 200 students (Grades 4–7) in Nevada County, California, used the site in classroom activities. In one school, fourth- and seventh-grade students worked in pairs to create pop-up books based on featured individuals. Survey results found no major differences between the responses of boys and girls. In fact, teachers reported that students did not even comment on or question the site’s emphasis on women. And, although the website focuses on personal stories, most students also reported learning something new about science and engineering.

STEM Stories was funded through a grant from the NSF’s Research on Gender in Science in Engineering Program (#HRD-0734004). New content is being added every month, including more current and historical photos, profiles, videos, and interactives.

To introduce your students to the STEM Stories site, try these activities:

STEM Stories Treasure Hunt

STEM Stories Crossword Puzzle

STEM Stories Lesson Ideas

We Want Your Feedback
We want and need your ideas, suggestions, and observations. What would you like to know more about? What questions have your students asked? We invite you to share with us and other readers by posting your comments. Please check back often for our newest posts or download the RSS feed for this blog. Let us know what you think and tell us how we can serve you better. We appreciate your feedback on all of our Middle School Portal 2 publications. You can also email us at msp@msteacher.org. Post updated 4/19/2012.

Beyond Penguins Wins SPORE Award

Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears has been awarded the Science Prize for Online Resources in Education (SPORE) by Science Magazine. The magazine, which is published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, developed the prize to spotlight the best online materials in science education.

Science editors and a panel of teachers and researchers in the fields select the prize winners. Kimberly Lightle and Jessica Fries-Gaither of the Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears staff were invited to write an essay about the project’s history and goals. The essay, Penguins and Polar Bears Integrates Science and Literacy, appears in the January 28 issue of Science.

Even though the magazine is directed at K-5 teachers, much of the content is applicable to the middle grades. Each of the 20 issues covers science concepts such as rocks and minerals, the water cycle, seasons, states and changes of matter, and plants, all in the context of the Arctic and Antarctica. Each issue highlights a literacy strategy, misconceptions, ideas on integrating technology, the research that is going on at the polar regions, and much more! Project staff have also written informational texts that have been differentiated in terms of reading level. The books are available in three versions – including an electronic version with an audio track. The Stories for Students link in the header of the site will take you to all versions of the books.

Thanksgiving Science

From the pop-up thermometer to turkey genetics, Thanksgiving offers lots of topics that can be explored through science. Thanks to Terry Shiverdecker for pulling together resources from the Ohio Resource Center collection of exemplary science, mathematics, and English/language arts resources.

Along with these resources consider asking students to conduct Internet research to answer these questions:

• What is it about a traditional Thanksgiving meal that makes you sleepy? Is it the tryptophan in turkey or something else?
• What is the science behind those golden brown and delicious dinner rolls? Hint: Maillard reaction
• Does cornstarch or flour make the best gravy?

Please share any other resources/ideas/questions/comments and have a great time!

Delicious and Nutritious
The food we use to celebrate Thanksgiving is delicious and may also be nutritious. But if we stuff ourselves we are likely to suffer the consequences. What better time to study digestion, what we get from food, and how science comes to the rescue when we over do it?

Thanksgiving Science: Tryptophacts and Tryptophantasies
Is turkey what makes you sleepy at Thanksgiving? No. Maybe. (How much did you eat?)

Food and the Digestive System
This lesson focuses on the digestive system. Students identify the major organs of the digestive system and determine the function of each organ. This Science NetLinks lesson is the first of a three part series.

Good Food, Good Health
Students explore ways in which food provides energy and materials for our bodies. In this investigation, students will use online resources to help them explore how food can affect their overall health. This lesson is the second of a Science NetLinks three part series.

Got Broccoli?
This lesson is designed to help students understand why the body needs food, and how it takes necessary nutrients as food passes through the digestive system. Students are asked to look critically at the advertising claims of foods they eat, recognizing those that ascribe unrealistic, emotional, or psychological benefits to foods, rather than nutritional benefits. Students will then create an original advertising campaign for a “forgotten” vegetable, presenting compelling, factual information about the nutrients found in these foods and the benefits derived from them.

Enzyme Salad Lab
In this activity students examine the effects of a specific digestive enzyme (bromelin) found in pineapple on a specific protein found in Jell-O.

The Effectiveness of Antacids
In this performance assessment from PALS, students design and conduct a scientific experiment to test which of four antacids would be most effective for neutralizing acid. They will rank the antacids in order from most effective to least effective and explain how they determined the effectiveness of each one. The resource is designed to assess grades 9-12 students but can be modified to be appropriate for middle level students.

Pop-Up Turkey Thermometers
How do those pop-up thermometers they put in turkeys work? It turns out that there is a little piece of a solder type material in the thermometer that melts at 185 degree F. So when the turkey reaches that temperature the solder melts, the plastic pops up, and you know it is time to eat. This bit of Thanksgiving information can be related to change of phase, heat transfer, and physical/chemical change. You could also consider a design challenge around this idea.

Matter of State
This lesson is designed to give students the opportunity to observe a phenomenon created by particle movement. Students begin to move from the fundamental concept of solid, liquid and gas to the reasoning for why the states exist under given conditions.

The Heat Is On
In this resource students discover how heat is transferred by conduction through matter by watching interactive video segments.

Turkeys and Genetics
The turkeys served on Thanksgiving Day are dramatically different from the ones served many years ago. To meet the demand for birds with more white meat, turkeys have been selectively bred and fed special diets designed to result in birds with larger breasts. Consider engaging students in a discussion of this somewhat controversial practice as a way to introduce genetics.

Modeling Mendel’s Pea Experiment
This modeling activity allows students to discover for themselves what Mendel uncovered in his famous pea experiments. It is an excellent introduction to Mendelian genetics which generates discussion and stimulates interest in Mendel’s principles. Students are encouraged to use the same observation and critical thinking skills that Mendel used.

We Want Your Feedback
We want and need your ideas, suggestions, and observations. What would you like to know more about? What questions have your students asked? We invite you to share with us and other readers by posting your comments. Please check back often for our newest posts or download the RSS feed for this blog. Let us know what you think and tell us how we can serve you better. We appreciate your feedback on all of our Middle School Portal 2 publications. You can also email us at msp@msteacher.org. Post updated 4/09/2012.