Curricular Unit: Engineering for the Earth

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

Four photos: (left) urban landscape with roads and bridges, (next) man and boy arms outstretched towards a large body of water, (next) natural landscape with swampy river, foothills, ridge and cloudy sky, (last) globe of the earth on cracked dry soil, with a few green seedlings.
Our planet Earth
Copyright © 2004 Microsoft Corporation, One Microsoft Way, Redmond, WA 98052-6399 USA. All rights reserved.


Young students are introduced to the complex systems of the Earth through numerous lessons on its natural resources, processes, weather, climate and landforms. Key earth science topics include rocks, soils and minerals, water and natural resources, weather patterns and climatic regions, wind, erosion, landforms, and the harvesting of fossil fuels—all presented from an engineering point-of-view. (See the Unit Overview section for a list of topics by lesson.) Through many hands-on activities, students build and test sand castles for construction strength, measure snow melt as a potential water source, use colored ice cubes and salt water to learn about ocean currents, make 3-D water catchment basins, make surface tension/surfactant-powered paper boats, build and use wind vanes, build and test model wind turbines, model and observe five types of erosion, model acid rain using chalk and kitchen supplies, build transportation systems across their own 3-D model landscapes, take core samples from a clay model of the Earth's crust, read and create graphs and charts as they learn about international oil production and consumption, act as engineers by specifying the power plants to build for communities, given scenarios with budgets, energy needs and environmental impacts. They learn the steps of the engineering design process as they hypothesize ways engineers might obtain water for communities facing water crises.

Engineering Connection

Students who study earth science soon become awed with the magnitude of our planet's landforms, geology, natural resources and processes. With this appreciation, engineers around the world design the tools and processes to find and extract raw materials from the Earth's crust to create the hardworking and safe roads, vehicles, structures, electronics, chemicals and electricity upon which we depend. Engineers decide placement of the highways, tracks and bridges of our transportation infrastructure, as well as the telephone cables, electricity transmission towers and power generation plants (including wind, water and solar) that enable communication and supply electricity. Some engineers investigate the soil types, erosion forces, and climatic environmental conditions. Other engineers examine landforms as they apply to mining, natural hazards and environmental protection, creating tools such as satellite imagery for mapping. Solving basic survival challenges are at the heart of what engineering is about. To provide clean water for communities, engineers must understand the water cycle and local resources as they design treatment plants and distribution systems that are continually being challenged with polluted water sources. Engineers help our growing human population adapt to all climates with the design of fabrics, shelters and weather technologies that help us predict and be protected from environmental conditions. Engineers create wind turbines and wind farms to tap this renewable energy source. The search for and production of fossil fuels is an engineering endeavor on many levels. Before drilling, engineers design tools and techniques — core sampling, seismic-reflection for underground mapping, microscopic size and porosity examination of reservoir rock — as well as specialized machines for extracting and transporting oil, and refining processes to convert crude oil into usable forms.

More Curriculum Like This

Sea to Sky

Sudents learn about major landforms (such as mountains, rivers, plains, valleys, canyons and plateaus) and how they occur on the Earth's surface. They learn about the civil and geotechnical engineering applications of geology and landforms, including the design of transportation systems, mining, map...

Elementary Lesson
Our Big Blue Marble

Students are introduced to the fabulous planet on which they live. Even though we spend our entire lives on Earth, we still do not always understand how it fits into the rest of the solar system. Students learn about the Earth's position in the solar system and what makes it unique. They learn how e...

Elementary Lesson
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
Carbon Cycles

Students are introduced to the concept of energy cycles by learning about the carbon cycle. They learn how carbon atoms travel through the geological (ancient) carbon cycle and the biological/physical carbon cycle. They consider how human activities disturb the carbon cycle by emitting carbon dioxid...

Middle School Lesson

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.

  • Generate and compare multiple possible solutions to a problem based on how well each is likely to meet the criteria and constraints of the problem. (Grades 3 - 5) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Make observations and/or measurements to provide evidence of the effects of weathering or the rate of erosion by water, ice, wind, or vegetation. (Grade 4) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Develop a model using an example to describe ways the geosphere, biosphere, hydrosphere, and/or atmosphere interact. (Grade 5) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Obtain and combine information about ways individual communities use science ideas to protect the Earth's resources and environment. (Grade 5) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Draw a scaled picture graph and a scaled bar graph to represent a data set with several categories. Solve one- and two-step "how many more" and "how many less" problems using information presented in scaled bar graphs. (Grade 3) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
Suggest an alignment not listed above

Unit Overview

Overview of topics by lesson: 1) the rocks, soils and minerals that form the Earth's crust, 2) the Earth's water resources and the water cycle, 3) the human household water cycle, 4) exploring the characteristics that define climatic regions [desert, tropical, alpine, coastal] and their impact on everyday lives of people, 5) understanding, measuring and harnessing wind, 6) the types of erosion and its shaping of the Earth, 7) the occurrence of major landforms [mountains, rivers, plains, valleys, canyons, plateaus] on the Earth's surface, (8) production and consumption of oil as a fossil fuel, and 9) the US electric power industry and its environmental impacts.

Unit Schedule


See individual lessons and activities.


© 2004 by Regents of the University of Colorado

Supporting Program

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


The contents of this digital library curriculum were developed under grants from the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE), U.S. Department of Education and the National Science Foundation (GK-12 grant no. 0338326). However, these contents do not necessarily represent the policies of the Department of Education or National Science Foundation, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.