Polar Bears and PCs: Technology’s Unintended Consequences

How Does an iPod Affect a Polar Bear?

Photo courtesy of Amanda Graham (Yukon White Light) via Flickr.

When we talk about the problems of global climate change, we tend to focus on cars and coal-burning power plants as major contributors. Yet there are other significant players, including consumer electronics. The number of cell phones, MP3 players, laptops, and flat-screen TVs is increasing rapidly, and not just in wealthier nations. It is estimated that one in nine people in Africa has a cell phone – and those numbers are expected to continue growing.

A recent report from the International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that new devices such as MP3 players, cell phones, and flat-screen TVs will triple energy consumption. Two hundred new nuclear power plants would be needed just to power all the TVs, iPods, PCs, and other devices expected to be used by 2030.

For example, consider televisions. The IEA estimates that 2 billion TVs will soon be in use across the world (an average of 1.3 TVs for every household with electricity). TVs are also getting bigger and being left on for longer periods of time. IEA predicts a 5 percent annual increase in energy consumption between 1990 and 2030 from televisions alone.

While consumer electronics is the fastest growing area, it is also the area with the least amount of policies to control energy efficiency. Total greenhouse gas emissions for electronic gadgets is currently at about 500 million tons of carbon dioxide per year. If nothing is done, the IEA estimates that the figure will double to about 1 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year by 2030. However, the agency says that existing technologies could reduce this figure by 30-50 percent at little cost. Allowing consumers to regulate energy consumption based on the features they actually use, minimum-performance standards, and easy-to-read energy labels can help consumers make smarter energy choices about their personal electronics.

How to Turn This News Event into an Inquiry-Based, Standards-Related Science Lesson

This story connects to two National Science Education Standards domains: Science and Technology and Science in Personal and Social Perspectives. The Science and Technology content standard states:

Technological solutions have intended benefits and unintended consequences. Some consequences can be predicted, others cannot.

The Science in Personal and Social Perspectives content standard includes resource use and depletion, human-induced and naturally occurring hazards, and science and technology in society.

Ask students to consider electronic gadgets – cell phones, digital cameras and video cameras, MP3 players, flat-screen TVs, laptops, and so forth. Have students brainstorm the benefits of these devices. Easier communication, access to data, entertainment, and mobility will probably come up. Then ask students to brainstorm “costs” or negative characteristics. Expense will certainly be mentioned, but will the energy cost?

If you have access to an electric power monitor such as a Kill-a-Watt, you can have students plug in different gadgets and compare power consumption. This simple activity can give rise to a number of inquiry-based investigations, such as: What’s the most energy-efficient MP3 player?; Do laptops and desktops consume the same amount of power?; Does screen size (on an MP3, cell phone, laptop, or TV) affect power consumption?; and so on.

Share some of the figures from the IEA report with students. Discuss the idea that making technology (cell phones, laptops and Internet access) available to more people is a good thing, but there are intended and unintended consequences. Greater access to technology enables widespread communication and promotes education, but also requires more energy – most of which comes from fossil fuels. Burning those fossil fuels releases more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, accelerating climate change and causing Arctic sea ice decline. So all those iPods do impact polar bears after all.

Rather than leave students discouraged, present them with a challenge. Remind them of the many benefits of technology and acknowledge that electronic gadget use will continue to grow rapidly. How can science and technology address the unintended environmental consequences of these tools? Assign small groups of students a particular piece of technology and have them brainstorm ideas that would promote energy efficiency – either on the part of the consumer or the manufacturer, or both. Have groups present their solutions to the class and discuss them. What common solutions were raised? What can students and their families do now to use their electronic devices in a responsible manner?

Here are some related resources from the Middle School Portal 2: Energy Sources, The Power of Electricity,  What is Happening to Polar Bears? Real Data, Claims, and Evidence. The October 2008 issue of the free online magazine Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears included articles about natural resources, the NEED project, and energy efficiency activities for home and school.

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 June 1, 2009 in the Connecting News to the National Science Education Standards blog. The post was updated 4/23/12 by Jessica Fries-Gaither.

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.

Learning to Protect the Environment Is the First Step to Climate Literacy According to Newest Issue of Beyond Weather and the Water Cycle

Teachers of young children have the difficult task of taking the first steps to prepare children for a climate-literate adulthood while not overwhelming them with complex science concepts and a sense of helplessness. The latest issue of the professional online magazine for K-5 teachers Beyond Weather and the Water Cycle advocates providing an engaging look at our environment along with everyday steps all of us can take to protect the world we live in.

Beyond Weather and the Water Cycle bases its bimonthly themes on the seven Essential Principles of the Climate Sciences, developed by science, government, and nongovernment agencies for learners of all ages.

The theme of the sixth issue is the essential principle “We Change Earth’s Climate.” Two professional development articles, Humans: A Force of Nature and Essential Principle 6: Correlation to Standards and Curriculum Connections, give teachers a wide-ranging discussion of the generally accepted causes of climate change globally and show how the concepts align with K-5 national science education standards. In addition, the articles identify appropriate classroom resources and assessment strategies.

The magazine emphasizes integrating science and literacy teaching with an article on the reading strategy Making Connections and other features. The original story, Life in the Greenhouse, is presented at two reading levels and in a variety of formats, including electronic book, for differentiated instruction. The virtual bookshelf describes children’s trade books for further reading about the environment.

Teachers will also find suggestions for using lessons and activities from selected web sites in unit plans for K-2 and 3-5 grades. A feature called Take Action! offers specific conservation steps young people can take in the classroom and the home.

Harnessing social media for instruction is the subject of an article about collaboration with the school librarian. Another article highlights interactive resources for the elementary classroom.

Beyond Weather and the Water Cycle is funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). It is modeled on an award-winning NSF-funded project Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears: Integrating Literacy and Science in K-5 Classrooms.

The project is produced at the School of Teaching and Learning, College of Education and Human Ecology, Ohio State University (OSU). Kimberly Lightle, director of digital libraries in the college, is the principal investigator for the project and a feature writer for the online magazine. Jessica Fries-Gaither, an educational resource specialist at OSU, is the project director. For more information about the project, email fries-gaither.1@osu.edu.

Newest Issue of Beyond Weather and the Water Cycle Highlights the Science of Climate Study

Scientists recording data on Sperry Glacier. Photo courtesy of glaciernps, Flickr.

The just-published issue of the free, online magazine Beyond Weather and the Water Cycle gives K-5 school teachers a unique opportunity to introduce the science behind weather and climate change to young students with engaging lessons and proven reading strategies.

Each issue of the magazine takes its theme from one of the widely accepted principles of the climate sciences. The theme of the September 2011 issue is “We Study Earth’s Climate.”

Designed to integrate science and literacy instruction for educators in K- grade 5 classrooms, this and earlier issues provide background articles on the related science and literacy topics and their connections to the elementary curriculum. Science and literacy lessons to use in the classroom become a part of unit plans for grades K-2 and 3-5 and are aligned with the national standards for science education and English language arts.

An original story, titled  How Do We Study Climate?, gives young listeners and readers chances to use their comprehension skills on informational text. The story is available at two reading levels and in three different formats.  Selected children’s books on climate and weather are highlighted in a bookshelf feature.

Two articles are devoted to teaching young people to evaluate information from web sites and to use video clips from agencies that work with weather satellites, balloons, and buoys to learn about data collection.

Readers are welcome to add their ideas and suggestions on articles by leaving comments. They can also easily share and bookmark content by using the embedded AddThis buttons.

Beyond Weather and the Water Cycle is funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and produced on the campus of The Ohio State University (OSU) in Columbus, Ohio.  All past issues of the magazine are available from the homepage of the magazine.

Kimberly Lightle, director of digital libraries in OSU’s College of Education and Human Ecology, School of Teaching and Learning is the principal investigator of the project as well as a contributing writer. Jessica Fries-Gaither is the project director of Beyond Weather and the Water Cycle as well as the award-winning sister publication, Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears.

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 12/07/2011.

Project Earth – Making the World a Smaller Place

Project Earth is a global networking website for K–12 educators and the public designed to connect people around the world to help solve environmental problems. Its mission is to generate ongoing conversation and collaboration across national boundaries that collectively lead to positive environmental change. Registration is required and member teachers/schools/classrooms are able to showcase their innovative environmental projects, connect and interact with ecologically-minded people around the world (from Minnesota, to Los Lagos, Chile, to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia!).  Teachers and students also have the opportunity to participate in environmental contests and earn recognition for efforts.

Last year, Project Earth’s World Environment Day Contest drew winners involved with environmentally conscious projects such as studying how plastic bags affect our environment, and growing food for a school kitchen and composting the waste. Submissions to the 2011 contest are due May 15th. A great project idea for your classroom!

A few  other resources to tap into on this topic include the MSP2 resource guides on Technology and the Environment, Populations and Ecosystems, and Oceans, Climates and Weather.