Curricular Unit: Environmental Challenges in China: Rural Villages to Big Cities

Contributed by: Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder

Quick Look

Grade Level: 6 (5-7)

Choose From: 3 lessons and 4 activities

Subject Areas: Science and Technology

Three photos: (left) A young couple walks along a downtown street with many cars and signs in Chinese. (middle) A Chinese building with a peaked tile roof with slightly curved eaves. (right) Inside a home, six adults sit around a tabletop coal cookstove.
The country of China is a huge landmass with a massive population and ancient culture, growing and changing from old ways to new, and facing environmental, energy and health challenges along the way.
Copyright © (left, middle) 2004 Microsoft Corporation, One Microsoft Way, Redmond, WA 98052-6399 USA. (right) 2008 Abigail T. Watrous, ITL Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder


Students learn about the wonderful and fascinating country of China, and its environmental challenges that require engineering solutions, many in the form of increased energy efficiency, the incorporation of renewable energy, and new engineering developments for urban and rural areas. China is fast becoming an extremely influential factor in our world today, and will likely have a large role in shaping the decades ahead. China is the world's largest energy consumer and the largest producer of carbon dioxide emissions, leading engineers and scientists to be concerned about the role these emissions play in rural and urban public and environmental health, as well as in global climate change. Through exploring some sources of air pollution, appropriate housing for different climate zones, and the types of renewable energy, the lessons and activities of this unit present ways that engineers are helping people in China, using an approach to cleaner, smarter, healthier and more-efficient ways of living that apply to people wherever they live.
This engineering curriculum meets Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

Engineering Connection

Civil and environmental engineers are concerned about the increasing presence of indoor and outdoor air pollution in China, and its impact on public and planet health. To meet growing energy demands and reduce environmental pollution, scientists and engineers from around the world are looking for ways to replace polluting and non-renewable energy sources with cleaner sources of energy, design homes that are appropriate for local climates and resources, and save energy and increase energy efficiencies in the heating, cooling and cooking needs for homes. Today's engineers must be truly global engineers, understanding how factors around the world combine to affect our daily lives and creating design solutions that are affordable, robust, sustainable and culturally appropriate.

Unit Overview

China's rapid economic growth and industrialization has resulted in an increase in environmental pollution. The country is struggling with water pollution, soil erosion, desertification, and air pollution.

Through three lessons and their associated activities, students learn about some of the environmental challenges facing rural and urban China in the areas of energy use, air pollution, climate-driven home and roof design, and optimization.

In the introductory lesson, students learn about the sources of indoor and outdoor pollution in China, its composition of carbon dioxide and particulate matters, and its health effects. Two helpful approaches involve conserving energy (including energy efficiency) and using "clean" energy. In the associated activity, students discover how they can save energy.

In the second lesson, students learn about different climates in China and how this is reflected in smart house design, as they perform an associated design-build-test activity.

In the third lesson and its associated activity, students learn about renewable energy, solid fuels and the concept of optimization, and how engineers are working to solve the challenges of protecting the environment and public health. They reflect upon all they have learned in a creative wrap-up assessment activity. A short pre/post unit quiz is provided for overall unit assessment.

Educational Standards

Each TeachEngineering lesson or activity is correlated to one or more K-12 science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) educational standards.

All 100,000+ K-12 STEM standards covered in TeachEngineering are collected, maintained and packaged by the Achievement Standards Network (ASN), a project of D2L (

In the ASN, standards are hierarchically structured: first by source; e.g., by state; within source by type; e.g., science or mathematics; within type by subtype, then by grade, etc.

NGSS Performance Expectation

MS-ESS3-4. Construct an argument supported by evidence for how increases in human population and per-capita consumption of natural resources impact Earth's systems. (Grades 6 - 8)

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This unit focuses on the following Three Dimensional Learning aspects of NGSS:
Science & Engineering Practices Disciplinary Core Ideas Crosscutting Concepts
Construct an oral and written argument supported by empirical evidence and scientific reasoning to support or refute an explanation or a model for a phenomenon or a solution to a problem.

Alignment agreement:

Typically as human populations and per-capita consumption of natural resources increase, so do the negative impacts on Earth unless the activities and technologies involved are engineered otherwise.

Alignment agreement:

Cause and effect relationships may be used to predict phenomena in natural or designed systems.

Alignment agreement:

All human activity draws on natural resources and has both short and long-term consequences, positive as well as negative, for the health of people and the natural environment.

Alignment agreement:

Scientific knowledge can describe the consequences of actions but does not necessarily prescribe the decisions that society takes.

Alignment agreement:

NGSS Performance Expectation

MS-ETS1-2. Evaluate competing design solutions using a systematic process to determine how well they meet the criteria and constraints of the problem. (Grades 6 - 8)

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This unit focuses on the following Three Dimensional Learning aspects of NGSS:
Science & Engineering Practices Disciplinary Core Ideas Crosscutting Concepts
Evaluate competing design solutions based on jointly developed and agreed-upon design criteria.

Alignment agreement:

There are systematic processes for evaluating solutions with respect to how well they meet the criteria and constraints of a problem.

Alignment agreement:

  • Economic, political, and cultural issues are influenced by the development and use of technology. (Grades 6 - 8) More Details

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  • The management of waste produced by technological systems is an important societal issue. (Grades 6 - 8) More Details

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  • The use of technology affects humans in various ways, including their safety, comfort, choices, and attitudes about technology's development and use. (Grades 6 - 8) More Details

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Worksheets and Attachments

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More Curriculum Like This

Introduction to Environmental Challenges in China

Through an overview of some of the environmental challenges facing the growing and evolving country of China today, students learn about the effects of indoor and outdoor air pollution that China is struggling to curb with the help of engineers and scientists.

Rural Energy in China: How Can Engineers Make a Difference?

Students learn about five types of renewable energy that are part of engineering solutions to help people in rural communities use less and cleaner energy for cooking and heating. Through an energy game, students differentiate between renewable and non-renewable sources of energy.

Optimize! Cleaner Energy Options for Rural China

Students work in engineering teams to optimize cleaner energy solutions for cooking and heating in rural China. They choose between various options for heating, cooking, hot water, and lights and other electricity, balancing between the cost and health effects of different energy choices.

Off the Grid

Students learn and discuss the advantages and disadvantages of renewable and non-renewable energy sources. They also learn about our nation's electric power grid and what it means for a residential home to be "off the grid."

High School Lesson

Unit Schedule

This unit was developed to be conducted over approximately seven 50-minute class periods. See Table 1 for the suggested order to conduct the lessons and activities that comprise this unit.

Day 1: Pre-Unit Quiz and Introduction to Environmental Challenges in China lesson; Day 2: Design a Net-Zero Energy Classroom activity; Days 3-5: Construct and Test Roofs for Different Climates design-build-test activity; Day 6: Rural Energy in China: How Can Engineers Make a Difference? lesson, Optimize! Cleaner Energy Options for Rural China activity; Day 7: Wrap up: Unit summary assessment (creative reflection activity), Post-Unit Quiz.
Table 1. Environmental Challenge in China unit schedule.


Pre-Unit Quiz: To conduct an overall pre/post content assessment of this curricular unit, administer the attached 10-question Pre-Unit Quiz to the class before beginning any discussion on pollution, housing, renewable energy sources, and energy use and conservation in China. Then, after completion of the final lesson, administer the Post-Unit Quiz to the same students and compare pre- to post- scores.

Unit Wrap-Up Reflection: At unit end, give students time to discuss, reflect and process what they have learned before administering the Post-Unit Quiz. Say to the students:

We've come to the end of our unit on China! I hope someday that you will be able to visit China. Today I am giving you the time and freedom to reflect back on what you have learned. We learned about air pollution and environmental challenges in China, how the cities are growing, how engineers create solutions for people in the countryside, how we can use renewable energy, and how engineers design different types of homes for different climates.

Now, in teams of two, decide what you found most fascinating from our unit and create something to share with the class that summarizes and expresses what you learned. You can create a piece of artwork, song, rap, essay, poem, short play, poster, or whatever you like — the choice is up to you!

Have students pair off, and give them time (perhaps 20 minutes) to create what they would like to share. Then have teams take turns sharing in front of the class. Assess students individually on effort and engagement, as well as the incorporation of unit content. The goal is for students to reflect back on what they have learned and creatively convey what impacted them the most.

Post Unit Quiz: Conclude the unit (and an overall pre/post assessment of the unit if you gave the Pre-Unit Quiz) by administering the Post Unit Quiz (same as the Pre-Unit Quiz plus one essay question) to the class after concluding the final lesson/activity. Compare pre- to post- scores to gauge the impact of the curricular unit on students' learning.

Other Related Information

A good reference (and source of excellent introductory photographs) and source of extension ideas for this unit is "Choking on Growth," a New York Times 10-part series on environmental challenges in China (topics: overview, water crisis, activists, three-gorges dam, energy, wildlife threatened, polluting trucks, farming fish, two steel towns, green Olympics under gray skies). See

Learn more about the engineering research that prompted this curricular unit:

  • NSF recognizes CEAE graduate student and new Fulbright Fellow, Abby Watrous, and faculty advisor, Professor John Zhai, for environmental/energy research in China. Posted December 28, 2010. Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder. Accessed August 6, 2011.
  • Renewable Energy: A Reality Check in Rural China. Posted June 29, 2009. ScienceNation, National Science Foundation. Accessed August 6, 2011. (Includes 5-minute video recap)
  • Watrous, Abigail T. My Research: I Burn Stuff. Posted June 5, 2008. Discovery, Behind the Scenes, LiveScience, National Science Foundation. Accessed August 6, 2011.


Abigail T. Watrous, Stephanie Rivale, Janet Yowell, Denise W. Carlson


© 2009 by Regents of the University of Colorado

Supporting Program

Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder


This digital library content was developed by the Integrated Teaching and Learning Program under National Science Foundation grant no. 0946502. However, these contents do not necessarily represent the policies of the National Science Foundation, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.

This material was developed in part during Abby Watrous' China Fulbright fellowship in 2009-10. Sincere thanks to the U.S. State Department and the Fulbright Program for their support.

Last modified: September 30, 2019


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