Seasonal Changes Are Impacted by Climate Change

For us humans, especially in urban settings, the seasons come and go with regularity and cause relatively painless changes in our lives — longer days, shorter days, setting clocks forward or backward as we just did. But for most other animal species seasonal changes do not go unnoticed.  Further, when climate change impacts patterns of seasonal change, animals can be affected.

For example, pregnant caribou depend on particular plants to nourish them while they nurse their calves. The spring calving season is short and the window for peak plant nourishment coincides with that short season. However, these plants are emerging or germinating earlier in the season, in response to warmer temperatures, reaching their peak before calving occurs. Thus, nursing caribou are receiving less nourishment, calves are suffering, and mortality rates are increasing, as reported by ScienceDaily. Researchers believe this is just one example of the impact of climate change that will be documented repeatedly in the near future

caribouCaribou are cued to move to new grazing patches by increasing day length. The plants, however, are cued to emerge or germinate by increasing temperature. This causes a “trophic-mismatch.” If the trend continues, caribou will not survive unless they can find a substitute for their nourishment needs. This may be possible in one of two ways. One is an additional plant species, useful to caribou, becomes established in the ecosystem made possible by the longer growing season. The second way caribou could thrive is if the caribou alter their migration patterns to better align calving with plants at their peak nutrition. Doing so would be a case of the caribou population shifting its      range.

According to a second ScienceDaily article, “One of the main predicted effects of climate change is a forced shift in species’ distribution range.” This comment was made in reference to a plankton scientists have decided was able to change its range to further north in the Atlantic after the last warming trend in climate 18,000 years ago. They attribute this ability to a lot of genetic variability within the species and large populations. This, they say, is good news since it indicates the species can react and adapt appropriately in order to survive and avoid extinction. It is also a cause for optimism since plankton is the base of the food chain.

Conversely then, small, less variable populations are at risk of not adapting to and surviving climate change. What if anything can or should be done?

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

The National Science Education Standards in life science states students should gain understanding in (1) structure and function in living systems, (2) regulation and behavior, and (3) diversity and adaptations of organisms. Climate change affords opportunities to touch on those areas as well as topics in Science and Society, and Earth Science concepts in climate.

Ask students what caribou are, where they live and how they behave. Or direct students to do their own research. This Natureworks site provides a succinct reference for students.  Most will probably know caribou migrate and live in Alaska, but students may not know they also live in Greenland. Many will say caribou are reindeer. Though they are related, they are different. Reindeer are domesticated and live in northern Asia actually.

Students may know caribou migrate, but they may not be fully aware of the adaptations the caribou have, enabling the thousands of miles of migration accomplished each year. Ask students what cues caribou to migrate north in the spring: increasing day length or increasing temperatures? Since temperatures vary, it is adaptive perhaps that caribou respond instead to increasing day length, which is rather constant in its annual pattern.

Now focus on the plants of the tundra. What signals plants it’s time to emerge? Warming temperatures rather than light. After all, an underground root system or a buried seed cannot sense light. To track average temperatures from 1995-2003, students can access Excel files of the data from the Arctic Long Term Ecological Site. In pairs or groups of three, students can find tundra temperature data for a specific year and then share. They can have the program calculate the average temperature each year for the month of June or the first week in June. Graph the data points. What is the pattern?

Tundra plants are low to the ground and small. Caribou have to do a lot of grazing to meet their needs. Turn student attention to the calving and nursing period. Calves nurse for about one month. Nursing caribou need lots of nutrition during that period. What if calves were born one week after plants had reached their maximum? How might this impact the herd over time? Remind students of the two different cues plant and caribou respond to: light and temperature. How might the plant diversity be impacted by a warming trend?

Share the plankton story with students. In sum, two things can happen in response to climate change: adapt or go extinct. Life on the planet survived the last warming trend; thus it may survive this one too. However, human contributions to this warming trend were not present 18,000 years ago. It remains to be seen what difference that makes.

Here are additional related resources from the Middle School Portal 2: Science and the Polar Regions and The Reason for the Seasons.

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

This post was originally written by Mary LeFever and published November 5, 2008 in the Connecting News to the National Science Education Standards blog. The post was updated 4/23/12 by Jessica Fries-Gaither.

We Are All Connected to the Oceans: A Lesson to Help Students Understand the Ways Humans Impact Marine Ecosystems

Students can look at a globe or map and readily see that water dominates our planet. However, do students know that over 70 percent of the earth’s surface is covered by water? Do they realize the importance of the oceans?

Currently, 80 percent of all people live within 60 miles of a seacoast. Yet many adolescents still do not think that the ocean waters impact their lives and vice versa. There are many reasons for this naive thinking. A common one is “I don’t eat seafood so I don’t use ocean resources.” Other reasons can be attributed to lack of a personal connection with the oceans. Some students have never visited oceans and swam in their warm waters.

As educators, one of our goals is to help students understand the importance of their everyday actions.  The National Science Education Standards state that students should have an understanding of human impact on the environment.

To help students identify how humans impact the marine environment, make a personal connection with the oceans, and raise awareness of marine environmental issues, teachers can use this week-long lesson.  This activity will help students think critically within the context of important marine issues.

National Science Education Standards

This lesson closely aligns with three of the Science Content Standards of the National Science Education Standards: 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.


Engage students in learning about their personal connection with the ocean. Have students act as marine scientists for a week. On day 1, students should read an article/blog post or watch a video clip that discusses current news about the oceans. Students should read different articles and watch different videos. Students should then write a brief “news report” of their own. This report should summarize the article or video that they read or watched.

In their news report, students should alert their audience to daily activities, such as littering or not recycling, that may impact and contribute to changing marine environments.

Here are some ideas for articles and videos:


On day 2 as marine scientists, the students will explore their marine articles and videos in an “environmental summit. ” In small groups, they will share their news reports and discuss the daily activities that they came up with.

Students should then group the activities into categories (i.e., littering and driving separately/not carpooling could be in a category titled “increased pollution”).  Students should determine the relative significance of each activity. Students may wish to use a rating scale to explain the impact (i.e., a rating of 5 would mean the daily activity directly damages the ocean in a negative way and a rating of 1 would mean the activity could potentially harm marine environments). Students will then share their categories and rating scales with the class.  List the categories and activities on the board.

Note — you should see similarities within the groups.  Raise students’ awareness of this and facilitate a class discussion centered around humans impacting marine environments.


On days 3 and 4, students will work in small groups of two to three to create an action plan.  The goal of this action plan will be to raise awareness of marine environmental issues and to identify how humans impact the marine environment.

In this action plan, students should:

  • State and describe why an action plan is needed.
  • Support their claims with real data.
  • Identify five human actions that impact the marine environment.
  • Propose a possible solution and identify steps humans can take to reduce their negative impact on the marine environment.

Evaluate (Assess)

On day 5, students will submit their action plans to the summit leader (the teacher). Students will explain their findings to the class and share their proposed solutions. Students will compare and contrast the various solutions through class discussion. Then students will journal or reflect on their own personal impact and what they can do to lessen this impact.


Middle School Portal 2 (MSP2) provides many great resources focused on the oceans.  For background information, try Earth’s Oceans.  This guide discusses the oceans as a part of the earth system — the link between oceans and climate; tsunamis; life science concepts such as ocean ecosystems, food webs, and biodiversity; real data – both sources of and projects that use real data; and related careers. There is  a section on common misconceptions about the oceans and a section about the science standards that the guide connects to.

Even though you might not teach a unit called oceans, the oceans can be used as a context within other units, such as ecosystems, energy transfer, systems thinking, or methods in science.

Another useful resource developed by MSP2  is Ocean Systems.  This guide focuses on earth and physical science, including volcanic island formation and tsunamis; life science concepts, including ocean ecosystems, food webs, and biodiversity; science in personal and social perspectives, including pollution, endangered species and conservation; and related careers.

Students may wish to use visuals to raise awareness. Ecoartspace is an organization that focuses on addressing environmental issues through the visual arts. In addition to their action plans, students can create visual works of art that can be displayed throughout the school to raise awareness.  (You may want to work in collaboration with your school’s art program).

This lesson lends itself to discussing climate change.  These resources will help you have that discussion:

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

This post was originally written by Brittany Wall and published March 29, 2010 in the Connecting News to the National Science Education Standards blog. The post was updated 4/9/12 by Jessica Fries-Gaither.

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.

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 Post updated 4/19/2012.

Free Professional Development Webinars

We’ve got four free professional development webinars coming up in the month of April. The first two are specifically for middle school math and science teachers. The second two are for elementary teachers but plenty of the content would be appropriate for older students. Librarians and media specialists, science specialists, informal educators, and others will find them useful as well. Please join us for one or all!

Getting to the Good Stuff: Online Resources for Middle School Math and Science
April 7, 2009, 3:30-4:30pm EST
Presenters: Robert Payo, National Science Digital Library and Kim Lightle, Middle School Portal 2

With huge volumes of materials on the Internet, how can teachers find the good stuff? We’ll explore how the National Science Digital Library and the Middle School Portal 2: Math & Science Pathways project addresses this question. We’ll show you how to find quality materials through organized collections, bundled resources that build teacher content knowledge, and online tools that facilitate better alignment of resources to teaching and promote broader community discussion through social networking.
Registration information:

Global Warming and the Polar Regions
April 28, 2009, 3:30-4:30pm EST
Presenters: Jessica Fries-Gaither, Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears and Kim Lightle, Middle School Portal 2

How is climate change shifting earth’s energy balance? In this seminar, we’ll provide content knowledge as well as resources for the middle school science classroom.
Registration information:

Ecosystems: Life in the Polar Extremes
Tuesday, April 7, 2009, 6:30-7:45 pm EST
Presenter: Jessica Fries-Gaither, Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears

At first glance, the polar regions may seem barren and lifeless. Yet there are surprisingly rich terrestrial and marine food webs that can be used to illustrate ecological concepts, relationships, and changes. In this web seminar, we’ll discuss the Arctic and Antarctic ecosystems and their response to climate change. Through examples of resources, lessons, activities, books, and teaching strategies, we’ll explore common ecological misconceptions and exemplary science and literacy instructional resources from the Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears cyberzine.
Registration information:

Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears: Arctic and Antarctic Birds
April 21, 2009, 6:30pm-8:00pm EST
Presenter: Jessica Fries-Gaither, Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears

Did you know that of the 17 penguin species, only a few live or nest in Antarctica? Or that many of our familiar bird species from the mid-latitudes migrate to breed in polar regions? While we’re all familiar with Emperor penguins, there are many other fascinating birds that call the polar regions home at least part of the year. In this session, develop your own content knowledge and learn how to use birds to promote inquiry, teach physical science concepts, and integrate hands-on science instruction with reading strategies and other literacy skills.

Registration information: