Drawing Connections

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

Summary and Learning Objectives

Students annotate a photograph of their local study site and then develop a more abstract diagram of the site that highlights the flow of energy and matter among the four components of the Earth system. The investigation concludes with students sharing their diagrams and creating a single class diagram to represent their study site.

After completing this investigation, students will be able to:

  • analyze a photograph of their local study site with respect to Earth systems;
  • annotate interconnections among components of the Earth system on a photograph;
  • translate their analysis of their study site into a diagram of energy and matter flow among components of the Earth system; and
  • interpret and evaluate diagrams of their local study site.

Open the Student Lab »

Activity Overview and Teaching Materials

In Part A: Students annotate copies of the photographs they took at the study site, highlighting the interconnections among elements and components of the Earth system.

In Part B: Students develop abstract representations of the study site, based on the photographs but highlighting the transfer of matter and energy among the spheres.

For more information about the Earth system, 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."

  • Stop and Think Questions PDF (Acrobat (PDF) 51kB Oct20 22) and Word (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 21kB Oct20 22)
  • to Stop and Think Questions

Teaching Notes and Tips

In Part A: Students' notes from their visit to the study site should help them with their annotations. If they are not already doing so, ask students to identify the process associated with the transfer of matter from one sphere or element to another (dissolving; evaporation; condensation; decomposition; digestion; photosynthesis; oxidation; etc.)

In Part B: This process of moving from concrete to more abstract representation of the Earth system interactions and processes is one students will continue in the following labs, as their focus broadens from local to regional to global interconnections. When students share their diagrams, consider displaying the diagrams around the room and having the students do a critique/gallery walk. On post-it notes, they can communicate what they like about their classmates' diagrams, questions they may have, or items that they think are important/not as important to include.


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

State and National Science Teaching Standards

Additional Resources

Background Information

Matter or energy moving from one sphere to another, or between elements of a sphere, defines the interconnectedness of the spheres. The ultimate sources of energy that drive the movement of matter are the sun and heat from Earth's interior.


The term reservoir describes the amount of matter or energy in a component of the Earth system at a point in time. The component may be an entire sphere (e.g., the reservoir of carbon in the geosphere) or an element of a sphere (e.g., the reservoir of carbon in trees in the state of Wisconsin.) As matter moves, reservoirs change. Some of these changes occur naturally: the reservoir of water in the pedosphere of a particular region can change with the seasons. Some changes occur because of human intervention: the reservoir of carbon in the geosphere is decreasing and the reservoir of carbon in the atmosphere is increasing as a result of burning fossil fuels.


The term flux describes the rate at which matter or energy moves from one reservoir to another. The rate at which water evaporates from a lake can be described as a flux. The rate at which vegetation decays to become part of the pedosphere can be described as a flux.


In many situations the flux of a particular material through two or more interconnected reservoirs is cyclical. Across different spans of time, the same material continuously moves through the interconnected reservoirs. The water cycle and the rock cycle are two familiar cycles. (Cycles are in contrast with unidirectional flow, in which matter is continuously depleted from one reservoir to accumulate in another.)

The biogeochemical cycles describe the cycles of those elements that exist in organisms as well as in non-living elements of the environment. The most common of those elements include carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorous, and sulfur.

The biogeochemical cycles happen within a virtually closed system: very little matter is added to or lost from the Earth system across time. In contrast, the flow of energy occurs in an open system. Energy generated by the sun enters the Earth system as light. Some of that energy is reflected into space, some is absorbed and transformed into heat, and some of that heart is radiated into space.

Content Extension

As an additional way to explore local data in depth, you might consider checking out the GLOBE website to learn more about their Visualize tool where students can track and analyze data from other school-based locations.

You may also want to have your students collect data from their own study site or from another location. The instruments you'll need to do this are: a thermometer; a rain gauge; one or more soil moisture sensors; and a meter for reading the sensors.

For more information about soil moisture, sensors, and meters, visit the websites below. Both websites have downloadable PDF versions of the listed publications.

Toolkit for the GLOBE Teachers' Guide

Soil Moisture Monitoring: Low-Cost Tools and Methods