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Curricular Unit: Environment

Quick Look

Grade Level: 4 (3-5)

Choose From: 10 lessons and 24 activities

Subject Areas: Science and Technology

Five photos: smokestacks and lights from a coal-burning electricity plant, skyscrapers rise above a dense city with a mountain backdrop; a highway runs through a region of forests and fields with mountains and clouds in the distance, many wind turbines spin in a field, and a bulldozer pushes piles of trash in a landfill.
People cannot live without the essentials of light, air, water and soil provided by the natural environment. Environmental engineers are concerned with the interconnectedness among elements of the natural and human-built environments.
Copyright © 2004 Microsoft Corporation, One Microsoft Way, Redmond, WA 98052-6399 USA. All rights reserved.


Through 10 lessons and more than 20 hands-on activities, students are introduced to the concept of an environment and the many interactions within it. As they learn about natural and human-made environments, as well as renewable and non-renewable natural resources, they see how people use our planet's natural resources and the many resulting environmental issues that exist in our world today. Topics include: solid waste disposal; the concepts of reduce, reuse, recycle and compost; the causes and effects of water pollution and the importance of water treatment and clean-up methods; air pollution and air quality and the many engineering technologies to prevent it and clean it up; land use and community planning, seeing how decisions made by people have a long-term impact on our natural world; and renewable energy sources, seeing how solar, water and wind energy can be transformed into electricity. In the hands-on activities, students: create a yarn "web" to identify environmental interactions, which they tally and graph; use Moebius strips (loops of paper with a half twist) to demonstrate the environmental interconnectedness and explore natural cycles (water, oxygen/carbon dioxide, carbon, nitrogen); conduct an environmental issue survey to gather and graph data and use an opinion spectrum; brainstorm ways that they use and waste natural resources; use cookies to simulate the distribution of nonrenewable resources; collect, categorize, weigh and analyze classroom solid waste for a week; build and observe a model landfill; evaluate alternative product packaging; use models to investigate the process and consequences of water contamination; design and build water filters; observe and discuss a balloon model of an electrostatic precipitator; build particulate matter collectors; observe and discuss a model of a wet scrubber; dig into the newspaper's daily air quality index; act as community planning engineers to determine optimal structure placement in a community; investigate the thermal storage properties of sand, salt, water and paper to evaluate their suitability as passive solar thermal mass; design and create models for new waterwheels within time and material constraints; build model anemometers; and create publications to communicate what they have learned.
This engineering curriculum aligns to Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

Engineering Connection

Environmental engineers are involved in a wide range of projects due to the countless intersections between the natural and human-made environments. Their challenges may involve pollution, waste disposal, recycling, land use, saving wilderness areas, product packaging, new energy sources, and how we use the planet's natural resources. Engineers find innovative ways to conserve our air, water and land resources, sometimes in the form of improved fuel and energy efficiencies. Engineers use their understanding of natural cycles to design and build systems that provide clean water and protect water supplies. This may take the form of gigantic infrastructure or creative "low-tech" solutions for remote communities. Some engineers devise better ways to get rid of our everyday garbage — a challenge that includes everything from reducing initial waste to transforming existing trash into usable materials. Engineers clean up contaminated soil, water and air; as well as modify systems to prevent future environmental destruction. They create landfills that don't add to pollution, devise recyclable materials and better industrial processes, and create smarter packaging. Engineers contribute to community land use design, planning neighborhoods, water treatment facilities, traffic flow and public transportation systems, striving to minimize harm to the environment. Engineers apply their understanding of energy to harnessing renewable solar, wind and water resources to create electricity. For example, designing wind turbines requires consideration of the Earth's surface, wind direction, average outside temperature, the impact by and on birds and insects, and extreme forces on the turbines. Engineers usually work as part of teams, and need to communicate and listen well. They consider all viewpoints, weigh pros and cons, investigate solutions, and propose strategies. Engineers also suggest behavior and policy changes. They document their work in the form of drawings, prototypes and test results, and explain technical concepts to various audiences.

Unit Overview

Overview of topics by lesson: 1) the concept of an environment and its interconnectedness, as well as the role of environmental engineering in our society; 2) environmental issues and opinions, including the perspectives commonly referred to as preservationist and conservationist; 3) renewable and non-renewable natural resources and evaluation of their distribution and waste; 4) how we process solid waste (trash, landfills) and its effects on the environment; 5) 3RC management of solid waste (reduce, reuse, recycle and compost), including packaging decisions and landfill biodegradation; 6) causes and effects of water pollution through models and scientific investigation; 7) air pollution and engineering clean-up and prevention technologies; 8) community land use; 9) renewable energy resources (solar, water, wind); and 10) the role of communication, especially for engineers.

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 (www.achievementstandards.org).

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.

See individual lessons and activities for standards alignment.

More Curriculum Like This

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."

preview of 'Off the Grid' Lesson
High School Lesson
3RC (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and Compost)

Students expand their understanding of solid waste management to include the idea of 3RC: reduce, reuse, recycle and compost. They look at the effects of packaging decisions (reducing) and learn about engineering advancements in packaging materials and solid waste management.

Unit Schedule

The following schedule provides a suggested order of the lessons and activities. However, you may choose to only teach some of the activities – as your time and priorities permit.


© 2005 by Regents of the University of Colorado


See individual lessons and activities.

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.

Last modified: April 30, 2020

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