EarthLabs for Educators > Earth System Science > Lab 6: Air, Water, Land, & Life: A Global Perspective

Air, Water, Land, & Life: A Global Perspective

The lab activity described here was adapted by Erin Bardar of TERC for the EarthLabs project.

Summary and Learning Objectives

In Lab 5, students learned about some of the global circulation processes that transport both matter and energy around the planet. In Lab 6A they get a much more specific picture of the Earth system at the global scale as they investigate data collected by NASA satellites. The data is displayed in image form in the NEO (NASA Earth Observations) data visualization tool. How do the four interconnected spheres show up at the global scale in these data representations? Is it possible, from studying this data, to infer some of the same interconnections at the global scale that were identified at the local study site? What can students infer from studying changes across the seasons?

In Lab 6B students play a game that focuses their attention on the global water cycle, but at the particle scale: what might happen to this molecule of water that falls onto the ground, or into a stream? Next they step back to the macroscopic scale as they diagram the ways in which water moves through the four interconnected spheres of the Earth system.

After completing this investigation, students should be able to:

  • use images and data about the whole Earth to identify the major components of the Earth system at the global scale;
  • describe the pathway of water among the four components of the Earth system, as an example of ways they are interconnected; and
  • translate their understanding of that pathway into an abstract diagram.

Activity Overview and Teaching Materials

In Part A: Students explore and compare Earth data sets using NASA's data visualization tool, NEO (NASA Earth Observations).

In Part B: Students play the NOAA Water Cycle Game and create an abstract diagram of the global water cycle.

For more information about the NEO visualization tool, the NASA satellites that collect the data, and the water cycle, read the section titled Background Information under Additional Resources below.

Printable Materials

To download one of the PDF or Word files below, right-click (control-click on a Mac) the link and choose "Save File As" or "Save Link As."

  • Instructions, Game cubes, and Station labels for the NOAA Water Cycle Game (Link will open in a new window.)
  • Stop and Think Questions (PDF (Acrobat (PDF) 71kB Sep13 10) and Word (Microsoft Word 33kB Sep13 10))
  • You may also decide to print and distribute to students some of the resources in the Background Information section below.

Teaching Notes and Tips

NEO is a hands-on computer activity for students. While students can navigate their way through the interface and discover the options, it could save time if you gave them an orientation. The resource available in the background information (see below) provides a basic overview of the NEO interface. It also includes information about the analysis tool (ICE) that is built into NEO. Students are not asked to use the analysis tool in the Lab, but that's an option you can consider. Even without the analysis tool, there are ample opportunities for students to do non-numerical analysis of the NEO data.

The resource below, The Water Cycle: Reservoirs and Fluxes, is for teacher background information, but you may also decide to distribute copies to your students. You can find similar diagrams for other biogeochemical reservoirs and fluxes on the Web, for example the Global Carbon Cycle.


You can assess student understanding of topics addressed in this Investigation by grading their responses to the Stop and Think questions.

You can also review the diagrams students create showing the ways in which water cycles through the four spheres. Have they missed any significant fluxes? Have they added text to the flux arrows that accurately describes the process?

State and National Science Teaching Standards

Lab 6 activities have been correlated to Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) standards.

(1) Scientific processes. The student conducts laboratory and field investigations for at least 40% of instructional time using safe, environmentally appropriate, and ethical practices. The student is expected to:

(A) demonstrate safe practices during laboratory and field investigations.

(2) Scientific processes. The student uses scientific methods during laboratory and field investigations. The student is expected to:

(E) demonstrate the use of course equipment, techniques, and procedures, including computers and web-based computer applications;

(F) use a wide variety of additional course apparatuses, equipment, techniques, and procedures as appropriate such as satellite imagery and other remote sensing data, Geographic Information Systems (GIS), Global Positioning System (GPS), scientific probes, microscopes, telescopes, modern video and image libraries, weather stations, fossil and rock kits, bar magnets, coiled springs, wave simulators, tectonic plate models, and planetary globes;

(G) organize, analyze, evaluate, make inferences, and predict trends from data;

(I) communicate valid conclusions supported by data using several formats such as technical reports, lab reports, labeled drawings, graphic organizers, journals, presentations, and technical posters.

(3) Scientific processes. The student uses critical thinking, scientific reasoning, and problem solving to make informed decisions within and outside the classroom. The student is expected to:

(A) in all fields of science, analyze, evaluate, and critique scientific explanations by using empirical evidence, logical reasoning, and experimental and observational testing, including examining all sides of scientific evidence of those scientific explanations, so as to encourage critical thinking by the student;

(B) communicate and apply scientific information extracted from various sources such as current events, news reports, published journal articles, and marketing materials.

(11) Science Concepts. Solid Earth. The student knows that Earth's surface continuously changes over long and short time scales in ways involving dynamic and complex interactions among Earth's subsystems. The student is expected to:

(A) compare the roles of erosion, deposition, and igneous activity by lava, water, wind, ice, and gravity in constantly reshaping Earth's surface;

(C) describe and interpret Earth surface features using a variety of methods including satellite imagery, aerial photography, topographic and geologic maps, and apply appropriate technologies such as Geographic Positioning Satellite (GPS) receivers and Geographic Information Science (GIS) software.

(13) Science concepts. Fluid Earth. The student knows that the Fluid Earth is composed of the hydrosphere and atmosphere subsystems that interact on various time scales with the biosphere and geosphere. The student is expected to:

(D) discuss mechanisms, such as atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration, major volcanic eruptions, changes in solar luminance, giant meteorite impacts, and human activities that result in significant changes in Earth's climate.

(14) Science concepts. FluidEarth. The student knows that Earth's global ocean, powered by the Sun, is a major driving force for weather and climate through complex atmospheric interactions. The student is expected to:

(C) explain how thermal energy transfer between the ocean and atmosphere drives surface currents, thermohaline currents, and evaporation that influence climate.

(15) Fluid Earth. The student knows that interactions among Earth's five subsystems influence climate and resource availability, which affect Earth's habitability. The student is expected to:

(A) describe how changing surface-ocean conditions, including El Niño-Southern Oscillation, affect global weather and climate patterns.

Lab 6 activities have been correlated to the following National Science Education Standards .

Science as Inquiry (12ASI)

Abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry

12ASI1.3 Use technology and mathematics to improve investigations and communications. A variety of technologies, such as hand tools, measuring instruments, and calculators, should be an integral component of scientific investigations. The use of computers for the collection, analysis, and display of data is also a part of this standard. Mathematics plays an essential role in all aspects of an inquiry. For example, measurement is used for posing questions, formulas are used for developing explanations, and charts and graphs are used for communicating results.

12ASI1.6 Communicate and defend a scientific argument. Students in school science programs should develop the abilities associated with accurate and effective communication. These include writing and following procedures, expressing concepts, reviewing information, summarizing data, using language appropriately, developing diagrams and charts, explaining statistical analysis, speaking clearly and logically, constructing a reasoned argument, and responding appropriately to critical comments.

Understandings about scientific inquiry

12ASI2.3 Scientists rely on technology to enhance the gathering and manipulation of data. New techniques and tools provide new evidence to guide inquiry and new methods to gather data, thereby contributing to the advance of science. The accuracy and precision of the data, and therefore the quality of the exploration, depends on the technology used.

Science and Technology (12EST)

Understandings about science and technology

12EST2.2 Science often advances with the introduction of new technologies. Solving technological problems often results in new scientific knowledge. New technologies often extend the current levels of scientific understanding and introduce new areas of research.

Science in Personal and Social Perspectives (12FSPSP)

Environmental quality

12FSPSP4.1 Natural ecosystems provide an array of basic processes that affect humans. Those processes include maintenance of the quality of the atmosphere, generation of soils, control of the hydrologic cycle, disposal of wastes, and recycling of nutrients. Humans are changing many of these basic processes, and the changes may be detrimental to humans.

Additional Resources

Background Information