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.

Polar Bears and Climate Change

Did you know that polar bears are at high risk of population decline and future extinction in our warming world? Dr. Steven Amstrup, a Research Wildlife Biologist with the United States Geological Survey, discussed the status of the iconic marine mammal in the lecture, “Polar Bear: Climate Change Sentinel.” The lecture was part of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium’s Conservation Lecture Series. Dr. Amstrup works at the Alaska Science Center in Anchorage and has conducted research on polar bears for the past 28 years. He was part of the research group that prepared reports used in the listing of the polar bear as a threatened species.

Polar bears are the apex predator of the Arctic. They are closely tied to the sea ice, depending on it for mate selection, breeding, caring for young, and most importantly, hunting ringed and bearded seals. Pregnant females come on land in the fall and den for the entire winter to give birth and care for their cubs. The other bears continue to hunt on the sea-ice year round.

Studies have shown that polar bears prefer medium to thick sea ice over the shallower waters of the continental shelf. However, as Arctic sea ice has retreated in past years, bears are forced to travel out further (and over much deeper and less productive water) to hunt from the ice edge. In the West Hudson Bay area, females are coming ashore up to three weeks earlier and thus losing valuable time to feed before denning. In both cases this leads to decreased weight and a decreased survival rate of cubs and older individuals. Years of sea ice decline correlate with population decline in the Hudson Bay and Beaufort Sea areas, trends which are most likely consistent with other polar bear populations around the world.

Based on this data, researchers projected that as a result of global warming and sea ice decline, polar bear populations have a very high risk of extinction within the next century. One particular population in the Canadian archipelago may be able to survive through the end of the century, as the ice there is still thick and covering shallow water. Ice thinning in that area may open up increased hunting opportunities and support a larger population. However, if warming trends persist, this population will also eventually be at risk.

When asked how individuals could help polar bears, Amstrup spoke of immediate changes to reduce our carbon footprint. While large scale action by governments and corporations is certainly necessary, it is worthwhile to remember that changing our individual habits (and encouraging others to do the same) can make a difference.

A study of polar bears and their response to climate change aligns with the Life Science and the Science in Personal and Social Perspectives content standards of the National Science Education Standards.

The entire National Science Education Standards document can be read online or downloaded for free from the National Academies Press web site. Find science content standards in Chapter 6.


Polar Bears International
PBI is nonprofit organization dedicated to the worldwide conservation of the polar bear. Find background information and information about the bear’s listing as a threatened species.

 The Polar Bear Tracker
Follow the movements of polar bears throughout the Arctic. Use the real-time data to explore how global warming is affecting the bears.

Tracking Polar Bears
In this interactive activity adapted from the USGS Alaska Science Center, investigate the migration patterns of polar bears.

Polar Bears Change Diet
This radio broadcast from 2001 explains how polar bears have adjusted their diet due to the climate warming around Hudson Bay, Canada. The ringed seals that polar bears normally eat have been harder for polar bears to get to, due to disappearing ice. This has forced polar bears to begin eating harbor seals and bearded seals. The clip is 4 minutes and 15 seconds in length.

Polar Bears and Climate Change
This video from the World Wildlife Fund addresses the primary threat to polar bears in the Arctic today: global warming. Scientists monitor the effects of climate change on the large predator’s activities and range, study the bears’ physical condition, and explore why the melting of glaciers and reduction of sea ice in the Arctic region may ultimately have dire consequences for the polar bears.

Bearly Any Ice
This game is similar to tag that simulates the prey and predator relationship between polar bears and ringed seals. It demonstrates the drastic impact of global warming by linking the amount of sea ice and length of season of sea ice to the survival of the polar bear.

Science and the Polar Regions
Background information, lessons, resources, and standards alignment for a study of the polar regions.

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.