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Earth Systems Science: Exploring Change in the Critical Zone

Hands-on activities for grades 5-8 that meet Earth Science and Life Science standards. Time estimates and lists of the inexpensive materials used for the activities are included.

The Critical Zone is Earth’s porous near-surface layer, from the tops of the trees down to the deepest groundwater. It is a living, breathing, constantly evolving boundary layer where rock, soil, water, air, and living organisms interact and control the availability of life-sustaining resources like food and water.

Scientific research in the Critical Zone focuses on understanding how the system operates, how it evolves, and how it will respond to future changes in land use and climate. Research in the Boulder Creek Watershed, part of the National Science Foundation’s Critical Zone Observatory Program, strives to understand how the area’s geology, hydrology, ecology and climate interact to provide water in three areas represented by the learning modules:

  • Foundations for Flow: In this module, learners and teachers build a Colorado watershed from the bedrock up and wear it down with constructive and destructive forces over time. Using snow, ice, and summer rains they create glaciers, streams and rivers to grind the mountains down to the landforms that we see today. They will see how events in our geological past, including the formation of sedimentary rock layers, mountain building, uplift and erosion, combine to form the foundations of the watershed.
  • Fire and Water: Using computer mapping and hands-on experiments, participants explore the relationships between ecosystems, wildfires, soils and water. They predict fire intensity and see how wildfires impact soils, erosion and water quality. They conduct experiments to help understand how different soils impact water flow and storage, how forest fires change soil and surface structures, and how these factors combine to impact both water quality and water availability in the watershed.
  • Ice, Snow and H2O: This chilly module focuses on how weather, climate, snow and ice impact the earth system interactions that supply year-round water to Colorado, with only the occasional flood or landslide. Participants create and conduct experiments with glacial ice, and use snow, data, measurements and math to understand the relationship between glaciers, snowpack and our water supply.
Download Exploring Change in the Critical Zone Program Guide
Download Exploring Change in the Critical Zone Curriculum
Link to Science Discovery page with module curricula, videos, fact sheets, and PowerPoint presentations

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