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

The lab activity described here was adapted by Erin Bardar and Sarah Hill 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 Part A 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 Part B 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 ( and )
  • 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 from NOAA's Earth System Resource Laboratory.


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

Additional Resources

Background Information