This is an image of astronaut Terry Virts taking photographs of Earth through the windows of the cupola of the International Space Station.

Photographing Earth from Space

Astronauts have the unique opportunity not only to see Earth from space but also to photograph it. Give your students a taste of this by registering for a mission with the Sally Ride EarthKAM. The EarthKAM is part of a program started by astronaut Sally Ride, who was the first American woman in space. The camera is permanently located on the International Space Station, a satellite in low-Earth orbit that houses several astronauts for months at a time. Once registered for a mission, middle school students can target a location and request images from the EarthKAM. As students prepare to make their requests, prompt them to think about photography as a tool of science. Ask them to think of ways photographs of Earth from orbit could be useful to scientists. Then ask them to come up with some questions they have that EarthKAM photos could help them answer. While you are waiting for your mission to begin, you can view all the images taken by the EarthKAM from the International Space Station and find related activities at their website.

This is an image of Earth taken from the VIIRS instrument aboard NASA's Earth-observing satellite, Suomi NPP.

Modeling Seasons with Stop-Motion Animation

What a difference 23.5 degrees makes! The tilt of Earth’s axis by this amount, relative to its orbital plane, causes our seasons. Students can begin their exploration of this concept by reading and discussing this Seasons article. To build on their understanding, have students use stop-motion animation to create an animated model. Students can create clay representations of the sun and Earth and animate them using this technique. For inspiration for their Earth sculpture, have them look at photographs of Earth taken by astronauts from space, such as this one taken by the crew of Apollo 17. Have students use a straw to represent Earth’s axis and draw Earth’s orbit on a piece of poster board to represent the orbital plane. They should use a protractor each time they move their Earth to maintain the proper tilt. Students can also add captions using notecards to explain what is happening.

The sun highlights the stratigraphic layers of the Grand Canyon in Arizona in this image.

Geologic Time: Looking at Strata

Relative dating is one way geologists can determine when extinct plants and animals lived. Understanding that, unless disturbed, older strata (layers of rock) will be found under newer strata is a key to understanding relative dating. The Grand Canyon is a place that makes visualizing this concept easy. Erosion from the Colorado River has exposed rock that represents nearly one-third of Earth’s history. Show students this image of the Grand Canyon and briefly discuss how it formed. Have them point out different strata visible in the photo. Show students this image of the Grand Canyon taken by astronaut Terry Virts from the International Space Station to give them another perspective of its enormous size. Ask them to explain which of these visible strata is oldest and which is youngest and why.

In this image, a Bengal tiger (Panthera tigris tigris) climbs out of a watering hole in a ray of sunlight in Chandrapur, Maharashtra, India.

Accelerating Extinction

Extinction is part of the evolutionary process, but currently there is an accelerated increase in the rate of extinction by 1,000 to 10,000 times the background rate. This is primarily due to human activities. Ask students what they think some of these human activities are. Have students work in small groups to research an endangered species and identify the major threats it faces. Encourage them to think about how the resources these animals need for survival are impacted. They can map where the species is found and add brief text to identify its major threats, using MapMaker Interactive. Students can look at the completed map to identify common threats in different regions and globally. Encourage students to think about ways we can address problems facing endangered species by reading National Geographic Explorer Tshewang Wangchuk’s blog post about the success of tiger and snow leopard conservation efforts in his native Bhutan. Show students this satellite image of the mountains of Bhutan to help them get a sense of its topography. Discuss how topography might affect potential threats to biodiversity. For example, how might the rough terrain in the mountains of Bhutan discourage poachers? Ask students to investigate the topography of the area where the endangered species they researched is found. What impact might this topography have on the threats they identified?

This is a satellite image of Hurricane Sandy in the Atlantic Ocean off the South Carolina coast.

Those Most Affected by Natural Disasters

Natural disasters occur all over the world, yet there is a large difference in the ability of wealthy and poor nations to recover and prevent a disaster from becoming a crisis. Have students examine this map showing where tropical storms (hurricanes, typhoons, and cyclones) occur. Then have students compare that map to a political map to determine specific countries that were affected by these storms. Ask students to categorize the countries they identified based on level of development. Then ask them to predict which countries would typically see the most death and displacement from tropical storms. Have students research death tolls for two cyclone events—Hurricane Harvey (2017) and Cyclone Nargis (2008)—and discuss why the differences are so significant. The article “Who are most vulnerable to natural hazards?” from the Royal Geographical Society provides information helpful for this discussion.

A satellite image depicting CO2 emissions emitted by the burning of fossil fuels.

Understanding Climate Change

Human activity, particularly our CO2 emissions, impacts Earth’s climate. NASA’s Images of Change gallery strikingly illustrates changes across Earth from the perspective of space, some of which are related to climate change. Understanding the complexities of climate change requires more than one approach. Introduce students to a few of the National Geographic Explorers whose work is related to climate change. Some National Geographic Explorers working in this area include Beverly Goodman, Alizé Carrère, Anne D. Jungblut, Jennifer Burney, M. Jackson, and Katey Walter Anthony. You can find additional explorers by selecting “climate change” under the “areas of expertise” filter on the National Geographic Explorers directory. Assign an explorer to each small group of students. Have students note the explorer’s area of expertise and how their work is contributing to our understanding of climate change. Have groups share this information with the class. List all the areas of study students mention on the board. Discuss the diversity of disciplines and approaches represented and why such diversity is necessary to understanding climate change.