Essential Principle 3: Correlation to Standards and Curriculum Connections

Life on Earth depends on, is shaped by, and affects climate is the third of seven Essential Principles of Climate Sciences. Principle 3 describes how the biosphere influences and is influenced by climate, with the carbon cycle being an integral part of the Earth system. Most ideas highlighted in this principle are part of the life science curriculum but continue to integrate concepts previously introduced in physical sciences, geography and other disciplines.

We provide information on some common misconceptions on adaptations and natural selection plus ideas for formative assessment in the Curriculum Connections section. In this article we provide a list of learning objectives and excerpts from the National Science Education Standards that are associated with Principle 3 concepts. You can read more about the science content knowledge needed for you to understand these concepts in the Beyond Weather and the Water Cycle article The Biosphere/Climate Connection. Lessons and activities that provide hands-on experiences or simulations of these concepts can help students develop a correct understanding and be found in the article Lessons about Life and Climate. Content area reading, such as our Feature Story and titles from our Virtual Bookshelf, can extend and supplement the hands-on inquiry.

Curriculum Connections

The concepts described in this principle are very complex with many being developmentally inappropriate for grades K-5, but the foundational knowledge that leads to understanding these concepts can and should be taught in the early grades. So what are the appropriate concepts to cover that will lead to understanding in the later grades? Looking at learning objectives and excerpts from the National Science Education Standards (1996) associated with Principle 3 concepts will help you determine what is appropriate for our youngest learners (see the National Science Education Standards section of this article).


While identifying student misconceptions is fairly straightforward, creating conceptual change is not. Researchers recommend using a hands-on approach and providing adequate time and repeated activities to create the conditions necessary for conceptual change. It is important to understand that children may be quite resistant to change even when these recommendations are carefully followed. In some situations, researchers found that students developed two parallel explanations for scientific events: one for science class and one for the “real world”! Instead of becoming discouraged, teachers should be aware of the ideas that students bring with them to science and how these might influence instruction and learning.

Mission Blue butterfly (Endangered species). Image courtesy of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

However, there are steps that elementary teachers can take to ensure that students begin to develop correct scientific concepts. Evaluating lesson plans, textbooks, and children’s literature for correct use of terminology and concepts is an important step in promoting scientific understanding.


Students of all ages often believe that adaptations result from some overall purpose or design, or they describe adaptation as a conscious process to fulfill some need or want. Elementary and middle school students also tend to confuse noninherited adaptations acquired during an individual’s lifetime with adaptive features that are inherited in a population. But in the theory of natural selection, populations change or “adapt” over generations, inadvertently. Even after some years of biology instruction, high school and college students have difficulties understanding the notion of natural selection.

Below are common ideas children in grades K-5 have about the topics of adaptation and natural selection, compiled from research on children’s ideas about science (Bishop and Anderson 1990; Driver et al. 1985; Driver et al. 1994; Settlage 1994), and the scientific explanation of what is actually happening. The following have been excerpted from Children’s Ideas, Session 5 of the Essential Science for Teachers: Life Science online content course.

Many students think . . . Instead of thinking . . . .
The environment is the cause of variation among individuals. Individual variation exists even when the environment is kept constant. Children can readily observe individual variation such as those found in plants. If they have not been introduced to the basics of heredity (i.e., DNA and genes), then they are likely to account for individual differences by considering what might vary around that individual – the environment.
Adaptation involves individuals changing in response to their environment in order to survive. In an evolutionary sense, adaptation occurs over many generations and involves change in a population. Change occurs in a population when some variation in a trait becomes more common with each generation. This is different from a response that an individual might make in order to survive during its lifetime.  The most common understanding that children have for the word “adaptation” will often involve a change that an individual makes. To build an understanding of adaptation as an evolutionary concept, children might be encouraged to consider two or more generations of a population that have changed in ways that make each successive generation better suited to its environment than the previous one.
Individuals adapt out of need or desire. Adaptation has a genetic basis. The need or desire to change in some way in order to survive has no impact on the information that is already present in an individual’s genes. This reflects anthropomorphic reasoning – the idea that organisms can consciously decide to change and that change comes about because of need or desire. One way to counter this idea in terms of evolution is to encourage children to think about other life forms that cannot think — like plants. [The Feature Story we wrote for Principle 3 covers the topic of plant adaptation.]
Traits that are developed during an individual’s lifetime can be passed on to their offspring. In order for traits to be passed to offspring, they must be coded in a parent’s DNA and then transferred during reproduction. Traits that are developed during a lifetime, such as a muscular build or the ability to speak several languages, do not have an impact on one’s DNA. Children who understand that offspring inherit traits from their parents may extend this idea to traits that a parent develops during his or her lifetime.  It may be difficult to challenge this thinking with traits that have a genetic basis — one’s build, for example. Encouraging children to think about someone who has dyed his or her hair or who has learned how to swim may help challenge this thinking.

Formative Assessment

Formative assessment is a useful tool for learning about student misconceptions, tailoring instruction to challenge them, and continually evaluating the effectiveness of your instruction in promoting conceptual change. Several resources from the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) provide valuable information for teachers wishing to incorporate formative assessment into their science instruction.

Science Formative Assessments: 75 Practical Strategies for Linking Assessment, Instruction, and Learning by Page Keeley provides specific techniques that use assessment to inform instruction and learning in K-12 science classrooms.

Another useful set of resources from NSTA Press is the Uncovering Student Ideas in Science series. Each volume contains 25 formative assessment probes for use with students, as well as research, suggestions for classroom use, and inquiry-based teaching ideas. To date, there are four volumes in the series:

Correlations to the National Science Education Standards

A study of the biosphere, adaptations of organisms, importance of greenhouse gases, carbon cycle, and climate aligns with the Life Science, Earth and Space Science, Science in Personal and Social Perspectives, and Unifying Concepts and Processes (Grades K-12) content standards of the National Science Education Standards for Grades K-4 and 5-8.

Grades K-4 Life Science Content Standard C

As a result of the activities in grades K-4, all students should develop an understanding of


  • Organisms have basic needs. For example, animals need air, water, and food; plants require air, water, nutrients, and light. Organisms can survive only in environments in which their needs can be met. The world has many different environments, and distinct environments support the life of different types of organisms.
  • Each plant or animal has different structures that serve different functions in growth, survival, and reproduction. For example, humans have distinct body structures for walking, holding, seeing, and talking.
  • The behavior of individual organisms is influenced by internal cues (such as hunger) and by external cues (such as a change in the environment). Humans and other organisms have senses that help them detect internal and external cues.


  • An organism’s patterns of behavior are related to the nature of that organism’s environment, including the kinds and numbers of other organisms present, the availability of food and resources, and the physical characteristics of the environment. When the environment changes, some plants and animals survive and reproduce and others die or move to new locations.
  • All organisms cause changes in the environment where they live. Some of these changes are detrimental to the organism or other organisms, whereas others are beneficial.
  • Humans depend on their natural and constructed environments. Humans change environments in ways that can be either beneficial or detrimental for themselves and other organisms.

Developing Student Understanding

During the elementary grades, children build understanding of biological concepts through direct experience with living things, their life cycles, and their habitats. These experiences emerge from the sense of wonder and natural interests of children who ask questions such as: ”How do plants get food? How many different animals are there? Why do some animals eat other animals? What is the largest plant? Where did the dinosaurs go?” An understanding of the characteristics of organisms, life cycles of organisms, and of the complex interactions among all components of the natural environment begins with questions such as these and an understanding of how individual organisms maintain and continue life. Making sense of the way organisms live in their environments will develop some understanding of the diversity of life and how all living organisms depend on the living and nonliving environment for survival. Because the child’s world at grades K-4 is closely associated with the home, school, and immediate environment, the study of organisms should include observations and interactions within the natural world of the child. The experiences and activities in grades K-4 provide a concrete foundation for the progressive development in the later grades of major biological concepts, such as evolution, heredity, the cell, the biosphere, interdependence, the behavior of organisms, and matter and energy in living systems.

Young children think concretely about individual organisms. For example, animals are associated with pets or with animals kept in a zoo. The idea that organisms depend on their environment (including other organisms in some cases) is not well developed in young children. In grades K-4, the focus should be on establishing the primary association of organisms with their environments and the secondary ideas of dependence on various aspects of the environment and of behaviors that help various animals survive. Lower elementary students can understand the food link between two organisms.

Grades K-4 Earth and Space Science Content Standard D

As a result of their activities in grades K-4, all students should develop an understanding of


  • Fossils provide evidence about the plants and animals that lived long ago and the nature of the environment at that time.


  • Weather changes from day to day and over the seasons. Weather can be described by measurable quantities, such as temperature, wind direction and speed, and precipitation.

Developing Student Understanding
Young children are naturally interested in everything they see around them – soil, rocks, streams, rain, snow, clouds, rainbows, sun, moon, and stars. During the first years of school, they should be encouraged to observe closely the objects and materials in their environment, note their properties, distinguish one from another and develop their own explanations of how things become the way they are. As children become more familiar with their world, they can be guided to observe changes, including cyclic changes, such as night and day and the seasons; predictable trends, such as growth and decay, and less consistent changes, such as weather or the appearance of meteors.

Children should have opportunities to observe rapid changes, such as the movement of water in a stream, as well as gradual changes, such as the erosion of soil and the change of the seasons. Emphasis in grades K-4 should be on developing observation and description skills and the explanations based on observations. Younger children should be encouraged to talk about and draw what they see and think. Older students can keep journals, use instruments, and record their observations and measurements.

Grades K-4 Science in Personal and Social Perspectives Content Standard F

As a result of activities in grades K-4, all students should develop understanding of


  • Environments are the space, conditions, and factors that affect an individual’s and a population’s ability to survive and their quality of life.
  • Changes in environments can be natural or influenced by humans. Some changes are good, some are bad, and some are neither good nor bad. Pollution is a change in the environment that can influence the health, survival, or activities of organisms, including humans.
  • Some environmental changes occur slowly, and others occur rapidly. Students should understand the different consequences of changing environments in small increments over long periods as compared with changing environments in large increments over short periods.

Developing Student Understanding
Students in elementary school should have a variety of experiences that provide initial understandings for various science-related personal and societal challenges. Central ideas related to health, populations, resources, and environments provide the foundations for students’ eventual understandings and actions as citizens. Although the emphasis in grades K-4 should be on initial understandings, students can engage in some personal actions in local challenges related to science and technology.

By grades 3 and 4, students regard pollution as something sensed by people and know that it might have bad effects on people and animals. Children at this age usually do not consider harm to plants as part of environmental problems; however, recent media attention might have increased students’ awareness of the importance of trees in the environment. In most cases, students recognize pollution as an environmental issue, scarcity as a resource issue, and crowded classrooms or schools as population problems. Most young students conceive of these problems as isolated issues that can be solved by dealing with them individually. For example, pollution can be solved by cleaning up the environment and producing less waste, scarcity can be solved by using less, and crowding can be solved by having fewer students in class or school. However, understanding the interrelationships is not the priority in elementary school.

As students expand their conceptual horizons across grades K-12, they will eventually develop a view that is not centered exclusively on humans and begin to recognize that individual actions accumulate into societal actions. Eventually, students must recognize that society cannot afford to deal only with symptoms: The causes of the problems must be the focus of personal and societal actions.

Grades 5-8 Life Science Content Standard C

As a result of their activities in grades 5–8, all students should develop an understanding of


  • Behavior is one kind of response an organism can make to an internal or environmental stimulus. A behavioral response requires coordination and communication at many levels, including cells, organ systems, and whole organisms. Behavioral response is a set of actions determined in part by heredity and in part from experience.
  • An organism’s behavior evolves through adaptation to its environment. How a species moves, obtains food, reproduces, and responds to danger are based in the species’ evolutionary history.


  • A population consists of all individuals of a species that occur together at a given place and time. All populations living together and the physical factors with which they interact compose an ecosystem.


  • Biological evolution accounts for the diversity of species developed through gradual processes over many generations. Species acquire many of their unique characteristics through biological adaptation, which involves the selection of naturally occurring variations in populations. Biological adaptations include changes in structures, behaviors, or physiology that enhance survival and reproductive success in a particular environment.
  • Extinction of a species occurs when the environment changes and the adaptive characteristics of a species are insufficient to allow its survival. Fossils indicate that many organisms that lived long ago are extinct. Extinction of species is common; most of the species that have lived on the earth no longer exist.

Developing Student Understanding

In the middle-school years, students should progress from studying life science from the point of view of individual organisms to recognizing patterns in ecosystems and developing understandings about the cellular dimensions of living systems. For example, students should broaden their understanding from the way one species lives in its environment to populations and communities of species and the ways they interact with each other and with their environment.

Students understand ecosystems and the interactions between organisms and environments well enough by this stage to introduce ideas about nutrition and energy flow, although some students might be confused by charts and flow diagrams. If asked about common ecological concepts, such as community and competition between organisms, teachers are likely to hear responses based on everyday experiences rather than scientific explanations. Teachers should use the students’ understanding as a basis to develop the scientific understanding.

Understanding adaptation can be particularly troublesome at this level. Many students think adaptation means that individuals change in major ways in response to environmental changes (that is, if the environment changes, individual organisms deliberately adapt).

Grades 5-8 Earth and Space Science Content Standard D

As a result of activities in grades 5-8, all students should develop understanding of


  • Living organisms have played many roles in the earth system, including affecting the composition of the atmosphere, producing some types of rocks, and contributing to the weathering of rocks.


  •  The earth processes we see today, including erosion, movement of lithospheric plates, and changes in atmospheric composition, are similar to those that occurred in the past. Earth history is also influenced by occasional catastrophes, such as the impact of an asteroid or comet.
  • Fossils provide important evidence of how life and environmental conditions have changed.

Developing Student Understanding

A major goal of science in the middle grades is for students to develop an understanding of earth and the solar system as a set of closely coupled systems. The idea of systems provides a framework in which students can investigate the four major interacting components of the earth system—geosphere (crust, mantle, and core), hydrosphere (water), atmosphere (air), and the biosphere (the realm of all living things). In this holistic approach to studying the planet, physical, chemical, and biological processes act within and among the four components on a wide range of time scales to change continuously earth’s crust, oceans, atmosphere, and living organisms. Students can investigate the water and rock cycles as introductory examples of geophysical and geochemical cycles. Their study of earth’s history provides some evidence about co-evolution of the planet’s main features—the distribution of land and sea, features of the crust, the composition of the atmosphere, global climate, and populations of living organisms in the biosphere.

Grades 5-8 Science in Personal and Social Perspectives Content Standard F

As a result of activities in grades 5-8, all students should develop understanding of


  • Risk analysis considers the type of hazard and estimates the number of people that might be exposed and the number likely to suffer consequences. The results are used to determine the options for reducing or eliminating risks.
  • Students should understand the risks associated with natural hazards (fires, floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions), with chemical hazards (pollutants in air, water, soil, and food), with biological hazards (pollen, viruses, bacterial, and parasites), social hazards (occupational safety and transportation), and with personal hazards (smoking, dieting, and drinking).
  • Individuals can use a systematic approach to thinking critically about risks and benefits. Examples include applying probability estimates to risks and comparing them to estimated personal and social benefits.
  • Important personal and social decisions are made based on perceptions of benefits and risks.

Developing Student Understanding
By grades 5-8, students begin to develop a more conceptual understanding of ecological crises. For example, they begin to realize the cumulative ecological effects of pollution. By this age, students can study environmental issues of a large and abstract nature, for example, acid rain or global ozone depletion. However, teachers should challenge several important misconceptions, such as anything natural is not a pollutant, oceans are limitless resources, and humans are indestructible as a species.

Little research is available on students’ perceptions of risk and benefit in the context of science and technology. Students sometimes view social harm from technological failure as unacceptable. On the other hand, some believe if the risk is personal and voluntary, then it is part of life and should not be the concern of others (or society). Helping students develop an understanding of risks and benefits in the areas of health, natural hazards – and science and technology in general – presents a challenge to middle-school teachers.

Middle-school students are generally aware of science-technology-society issues from the media, but their awareness is fraught with misunderstandings. Teachers should begin developing student understanding with concrete and personal examples that avoid an exclusive focus on problems.

Grades K-12 Unifying Concepts and Processes

As a result of activities in grades K-12, all students should develop understanding and abilities aligned with the following concepts and processes


The natural and designed world is complex; it is too large and complicated to investigate and comprehend all at once. Scientists and students learn to define small portions for the convenience of investigation. The units of investigation can be referred to as ”systems.” A system is an organized group of related objects or components that form a whole. Systems can consist, for example, of organisms, machines, fundamental particles, galaxies, ideas, numbers, transportation, and education. Systems have boundaries, components, resources flow (input and output), and feedback.

The goal of this standard is to think and analyze in terms of systems. Thinking and analyzing in terms of systems will help students keep track of mass, energy, objects, organisms, and events referred to in the other content standards. The idea of simple systems encompasses subsystems as well as identifying the structure and function of systems, feedback and equilibrium, and the distinction between open and closed systems.

Science assumes that the behavior of the universe is not capricious, that nature is the same everywhere, and that it is understandable and predictable. Students can develop an understanding of regularities in systems, and by extension, the universe; they then can develop understanding of basic laws, theories, and models that explain the world.

Developing Student Understanding

This standard presents broad unifying concepts and processes that complement the analytic, more discipline-based perspectives presented in the other content standards. The conceptual and procedural schemes in this standard provide students with productive and insightful ways of thinking about and integrating a range of basic ideas that explain the natural and designed world.

Note: Read the entire National Science Education Standards online for free or register to download the free PDF. The content standards are found in Chapter 6.


Bishop, B., and Anderson, C. 1990. “Student Conceptions of Natural Selection and Its Role in Evolution.” Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 27(5) 415-427.

Driver, R., Guesne, E., and Tiberghien, A. eds. 1985. Children’s Ideas in Science. Milton Keynes, UK: Open University Press.

Driver, R., Squires, A., Rushworth, P., and Wood-Robinson, V. 1994. Making Sense of Secondary Science: Research into Children’s Ideas. New York: Routledge.

National Research Council. 1996. National Science Education Standards. Washington, DC: Author.

Settlage, J. 1994. “Conceptions of Natural Selection: A Snapshot of the Sense-Making Process.” Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 31(5), 449-457.

Kimberly Lightle wrote this article. She received her PhD in science education at The Ohio State University and is principal investigator of Beyond Weather and the Water Cycle, Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears, and the Middle School Portal 2 projects. Email Kim at

Copyright May 2011 – The Ohio State University. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1034922. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. This work is licensed under an Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported Creative Commons license.

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