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Organizing Your Environmental Science Course

Have you been staring at a blank page trying to organize your scope and sequence for an Environmental Science course? Have you rearranged your lesson plans and activities over and over with no success? Finding a good order for your teaching resources is particularly difficult for an Environmental Science or Environmental Systems course because the concepts are constantly overlapping. To teach about aquatic ecosystems, students need first to understand hydrology. When discussing soils, students need to know about geology and groundwater. I know many high school Environmental Science teachers struggle with organizing this course, and I have been one of them.

Although I’m certainly not an expert on this topic, I thought I’d share a few ideas I’ve heard from other teachers on arranging lesson plans and topics for this course. Then I’ll share the methods I personally chose for organizing my year-long Environmental Science course.

1. Organizing for Envirothon

If you’re not familiar, Envirothon is a national competition sponsored by the National Conservation Foundation in which high school students demonstrate their environmental knowledge. If you’ve been asked to start an Envirothon group for your school or are interested in taking students to this competition, it might be worthwhile to arrange your Environmental Science course with the areas of study provided by Envirothon.

The areas of study covered include:

  • Aquatic Ecology
  • Current Issues (this category changes every year)
  • Forestry
  • Soil and Land Use
  • Wildlife

2. Organizing via Textbook

One of the easiest ways to organize your Environmental Science course is by aligning your lessons and resources with the topics in a textbook. Environmental Science is a course that changes frequently based on current events and politics, so many teachers do not use a textbook, choosing instead to use news articles and videos. However, many administrators feel more comfortable if a textbook is used and it may provide you with reading assignments, test questions, and homework for your students. Two of the most popular textbooks for this course include Pearson’s Environmental Science: Your World, Your Turn, and Environmental Science for the AP Course by Friedland and Relyea. The former is a good choice for on-level students or underclassmen, while the latter provides more in-depth content for advanced students.

3. Organizing when also teaching AP

If you’re teaching AP Environmental Science in addition to a regular Environmental Science class, it makes sense to cover the same content in both classes. This way, any lab materials needed in both classes can be kept out all day and you can reuse content and lesson resources from one class to another.

AP Environmental Science courses follow the official “Course and Exam Description” put out by The College Board. This document divides the AP content into 9 units:

  • The Living World: Ecosystems
  • The Living World: Biodiversity
  • Populations
  • Earth Systems and Resources
  • Land and Water Use
  • Energy Resources and Consumption
  • Atmospheric Pollution
  • Aquatic and Terrestrial Pollution
  • Global Change

Many AP teachers do find some units a little disorganized, and I have to agree, but if you’re working to prepare some of your students for the AP test, it probably makes sense to stick to the units as they were published.

4. Organizing by Spheres

When I started organizing my Environmental Science course, I referenced a few of the above methods. I wasn’t doing Envirothon competitions (although I did one early in my career), and I didn’t want to be tied to a textbook. Although I was teaching advanced upperclassmen, I wasn’t teaching AP. This gave me the freedom to arrange the course in the way it made the most sense to me. In looking at a few textbooks and the APES units, I decided to arrange my course based on the four “spheres” of the Earth- lithosphere/geosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere, and biosphere. Although these units certainly overlap, I could sort topics into the sphere that they fit into best. I incorporated human impacts into all of the sphere units, but also decided a unit on sustainability and human development might be helpful at the end of the course. I also added an introductory unit to explore some of the basic content that students would see throughout the year.

A high school student doing Environmental Science lab experiments
Water sampling during the hydrosphere unit

My major units are now as follows:

The four sphere units can be rearranged as necessary. I found it helpful to teach Biosphere first because students had some grasp of basic ecology from their Biology courses. Also, the Biosphere, Hydrosphere, and Land Use/Sustainability units lent themselves to a lot of outdoor activities, so arranging them at the beginning and end of the year allowed for the best weather. Then I sprinkle in some extension pages and worksheets for scientific literacy and critical thinking skills and I’m done!

For a free planning document using this content organization, click on the link below!

There really isn’t a right way to organize Environmental Science topics. If any of these are helpful when writing your lesson plans, go with it. If not, arrange the content in the way it makes the most sense to you!

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