Each year on April 22 we observe Earth Day by remembering our collective responsibility to care for the place we all call home. But, as environmental sustainability continues to become a larger issue that humans can’t afford to ignore, it’s also important to educate the next generation on how to incorporate “green” practices in our everyday lives.
Whether you’re looking for ideas to commemorate Earth Day, or ways to help students gain a better understanding of important environmental topics and issues, the tips and activities below in five key areas will help kids prepare for a greener future.
Pollution: It all started here
According to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), environmental sustainability is ensuring future generations have the natural resources required to live an equal, if not better, way of life as current generations. One of the largest threats to this idea, as well as the leading contributor to climate change as a whole, is pollution.
National Geographic defines pollution as the introduction of harmful materials into the environment. Some pollutants can be natural, like those caused by volcanic ash, but more often than not, pollution is created by the carbon footprints of humans. Air pollution, land pollution, and water pollution have catastrophic effects on environmental sustainability, especially when left unmanaged.
Activity 1: Create a simulated oil spill
One way to show students the impact of water pollution is to help them create a simulated oil spill. To get started, you’ll need a wide, clear container to hold water (like a small bowl), vegetable oil, and food coloring to simulate the spill. To imitate cleanup efforts, you can use craft sticks, straws, cotton balls, paper towels, cardboard, or sponges. (At least two would be ideal for showing the effectiveness of different cleanup methods.) Next, lead your students through the following steps:
- Fill the clear container with one or more cups of water so you have at least 2 inches at the bottom of the container.
- In a separate cup or container, measure 4 tablespoons of vegetable oil and mix it with 1-to-4 drops of food coloring. (Make sure students understand that the food coloring will not mix completely with the oil.)
- Carefully pour the dyed oil into the center of the clear container of water.
- After students have observed how the dyed oil sits on top of the water, float a 1-inch craft stick in the middle of the simulated oil to show its thickness.
- To begin simulated cleanup, use a 1-inch square piece of paper towel (or cardboard or cotton ball), and have students try to remove the oil from the water before it spreads and reaches the sides of the container.
- After students have tried each cleanup method (sponge, cardboard, etc.), ask them to report or discuss what they observed, and which clean up method was the most effective.
To take the process of a simulated oil spill one step further, the Innovating Science™ Oil Spill Cleanup: Biological vs. Physical Lab allows students to compare the biological and physical methods of an oil-spill cleanup. By applying a special blend of oil-degrading microbes and a hydrocarbon-encapsulating polymer to oil (all included in the kit), students can closely examine results and draw conclusions to determine the effectiveness of different clean-up approaches.
Activity 2: Examine our oceans
Another good activity for examining the effect of various pollutants on the ocean is the Ocean Trash Can Kit. With this project, students are asked to classify ocean pollution into five categories and then model the effects of the pollutants through activities that examine a variety of topics such as dilution, salt and acid runoff, and more. To add a cross-curricular approach, students will also design and write a newsletter containing articles about pertinent pollution topics.
Climate change: How to demonstrate the impact
Though the topic of climate change can be somewhat controversial, it’s important for students to understand what the term truly means. To put it simply, climate change is a long-term shift in temperatures and weather patterns that can have a direct impact on the health of all living things.
Since the 1800s, humans have contributed to the acceleration of climate change by burning fossil fuels that release harmful greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Over time, these harmful gases trap heat close to the earth’s surface, essentially acting like a warm blanket, known as the “greenhouse effect.” You can use a closed terrarium to demonstrate how this “blanket” works.
Activity 3: Demonstrate the greenhouse effect
Follow these steps to create a closed terrarium to demonstrate the greenhouse effect.
- A closed terrarium creates an isolated ecosystem within a sealed, transparent container — like a bottle or jar.
- The succulent plants inside the container have everything they need to thrive — the soil provides nutrients, and the water creates a mini water cycle to nourish the plants.
- Much like the ecosystem of earth, in a closed terrarium moisture rises during the day when temperatures are warmer and falls at night with temperatures are cooler.
- Terrariums need indirect sunlight, which provides plenty of light and warmth for the plants. Direct sunlight can be too intense.
- Because the glass (or plastic) walls of a closed terrarium magnify light, too much direct sunlight allows heat to become trapped, which causes a greenhouse effect.
The 4M Weather Station Kit expands on this terrarium approach by allowing students to experiment with the effects of weather, like rain, temperature and wind, on the ecosystem within a closed terrarium.
Activity 4: Demonstrate how climate change impacts organisms
For an even broader scope of how climate change impacts organisms over a much longer period of time, the Climate Change Organisms as Climate Indicators Kit allows students to examine the issue from a different angle.
By using simulated drill cores of seafloor sediments that contain fossils of microscopic organisms, students are able to determine the water temperature at the time the fossilized organisms were alive through a variety of tests.
Similarly, the Ocean Acidification Kit explores how global warming affects the planet’s oceans by running water through a myriad of tests. You can learn more about this popular project in the video below.
Alternative energy: Creating natural power for environmental sustainability
Alternative energy, also referred to as renewable or clean energy, comes from natural sources or processes that are consistently replenished — such as sunlight, wind, rain, waves, tides.
A good way to help students understand these concepts is to explain how solar energy is converted into electricity for homes, buildings, cars, boats, and more. Once they have a clear understanding of how the process works, students can begin to conceptualize how alternative energy sources can be applied in everyday use.
Activity 5: Demonstrate solar energy
Creating a solar-powered boat with a plastic bottle is popular project that students enjoy because they can design, build, test, and even race their finished products. In this activity students will:
- Learn how energy is transferred from one energy source to another
- Build three different types of solar boats — speed boat, air boat, and surface submarine
- Test the performance of their boats on water
- Determine how the differences in each design changed the boat’s performance
You can also purchase a Solar Bottle Boat Kit that includes all the materials needed to design and create the three types of boats.
Activity 6: Demonstrate wind energy
To demonstrate wind power as a viable alternative energy source, introduce students to wind turbines, and explain how they work. Wind turbines create energy by naturally spinning propeller-like blades around a rotor that powers a generator. With the Thames & Kosmos Wind Power Experiment Kit students can gain a better understanding of this by building a 3-foot wind turbine of their own. They can also conduct up to 20 different types of experiments with their turbine, like how to recharge a battery, or light up an LED.
Food sustainability: A “do no harm” approach to feeding the world
One of the most devastating effects of a damaged the ecosystem is the inability to grow the food needed to nourish the planet’s inhabitants. Pollution caused by industrial farming, chemical pesticides, fertilizers, as well as overcropping has led to the depletion of vital natural resources in many places across the globe. To combat this issue, farmers are now turning to more sustainable food systems that have fewer negative impacts to the environment.
Activity 7: Introduce methods of sustainable agriculture
To increase overall environmental sustainability, the Union of Concerned Scientists explains that new-age farms are paying closer attention to:
- Building healthy soil and preventing erosion
- Managing water wisely
- Increasing resilience to extreme weather
- Promoting biodiversity
Through the study of agroecology, and the use of alternative methods like vertical farming, which is the practice of growing crops indoors in stacked layers within a controlled environment, agriculture as a whole is shifting to a more sustainable approach. To help students better understand this, you can introduce them to soilless farming techniques like hydroponics or aquaponics.
The OPCOM® GrowWall 3C Hydroponics System allows students to grow herbs, moss, succulents or other small plants in a frame that can be mounted on the wall or placed on a table, and the AquaSprouts® Complete Garden Kit is a great option for teaching the aquaponics concept, as well as the idea of creating a self-sustaining ecosystem.
Conservation: The key to bringing it all home
The world is a vast, beautiful, and mysterious place, but replenishing its resources and protecting it from further harm will take a monumental effort. You’ve already taken a huge step by helping your students learn about the important topics above, but sometimes it’s okay to scale it down, too.
Activity 8: Explore conservation through species studies
Natural conservation is a moral philosophy focused on protecting species from extinction, enhancing the world’s ecosystem, and encouraging biological diversity. To help your students further understand the importance of these topics, guide them by learning about the behavior of fascinating creatures. For example:
- Help them study the activity of sea turtles.
- Teach them to identify the tracks of a bald eagle, moose, cougar, or crow.
- Show them what the regurgitation of an owl can tell us about the transfer of energy in the food chain.
The possibilities in the study of conservation and environmental sustainability are endless, but small steps with simple activities like these can lead to great strides down the road — and that is exactly what the planet needs right now.