Natural Resources

Earth & Space Science
Human Interactions with Physical Systems

In order to maintain and improve their existence, humans interact with and influence Earth systems.

Benchmark: Fuel Resources

Describe how mineral and fossil fuel resources have formed over millions of years, and explain why these resources are finite and non-renewable over human time frames.

Benchmark: Land & Water Uses

Recognize that land and water use practices can affect natural processes and that natural processes interfere and interact with human systems.

For example: Levees change the natural flooding process of a river.

Another example: Agricultural runoff influences natural systems far from the source.


Standard in Lay Terms 

MN Standard in Lay Terms

While students use non-renewable resources in every aspect of their daily lives, they may not be aware that there is a limited supply of these resources.  The fossil fuel resources that we are using now started forming 300-400 million years ago.  The conditions for them to form were just right.  There were plants and animals lived in swamps and bogs everywhere. As they died and decomposed they were covered by layers of sediments.  Over the course of millions of years and in different conditions, these formerly living things were changed into the oil, coal, and natural gas we use today.

Humans have always changed and used the resources in their natural environment.  These changes have impacts on the natural processes.  In many parts of Minnesota, flooding of stream and river systems occurs regularly.  There are many  human land use factors that contribute to the unnatural flooding process.  Additionally, in some areas, humans have attempted to limit flooding by building barriers such as levees in areas that would normally experience a flood.  Agricultural and residential runoff may enter the water systems and move relatively quickly to other areas where they become problems.

Big Ideas and Essential Understandings 

Big Idea

Big Idea 7. Humans depend on Earth for resources.

7.3 Natural resources are limited. Earth's natural resources provide the foundation for all of human society's physical needs. Most are nonrenewable on human time scales, and many will run critically low in the near future.

7.5 Water resources are essential for agriculture, manufacturing, energy production, and life. Earth scientists and engineers find and manage our fresh water resources, which are limited in supply. In many places, humans withdraw both surface water and groundwater faster than they are replenished. Once fresh water is contaminated, its quality is difficult to restore.

7.6 Soil, rocks, and minerals provide essential metals and other materials for agriculture, manufacturing, and building. Soil develops slowly from weathered rock, and the erosion of soil threatens agriculture. Minerals and metals are often concentrated in very specific ore deposits. Locating and mining these ore deposits provide the raw materials for much of our industry. Many electronic and mechanical devices have specific requirements for particular rare metals and minerals that are in short supply.

7.9 Fossil fuels and uranium currently provide most of our energy resources. Fossil fuels, such as coal, oil, and natural gas, take tens to hundreds of millions of years to form. Their abundance will make them the dominant source of energy for the near future. New sources, such as methane hydrates, are being explored.

Big Idea 8. Natural hazards pose risks to humans.

8.3 Human activities can contribute to the frequency and intensity of some natural hazards. These hazards include floods, landslides, droughts, forest fires, and erosion.

Big Idea 9. Humans significantly alter the Earth.

9.4 Humans affect the quality, availability, and distribution of Earth's water through the modification of streams, lakes, and groundwater. Engineered structures such as canals, dams, and levees significantly alter water and sediment distribution. Pollution from sewage runoff, agricultural practices, and industrial processes reduce water quality. Overuse of water for electric power generation and agriculture reduces water availability for drinking.

9.5 Human activities alter the natural land surface. Humans use more than one-third of the land's surface not covered with ice to raise or grow their food. Large areas of land, including delicate ecosystems such as wetlands, are transformed by human land development. These land surface changes impact many Earth processes such as groundwater replenishment and weather patterns.

Earth Science Literacy: The Big Ideas and Supporting Concepts of Earth Science.

Benchmark Cluster 

MN Standard Benchmarks  Describe how mineral and fossil fuel resources have formed over millions of years, and explain why these resources are finite and non-renewable over human time frames.  Recognize that land and water use practices affect natural processes and that natural processes interfere and interact with human systems.  For example: Levees change the natural flooding process of a river.  Another example: Agricultural runoff influences natural systems far from the source.

The Essentials

"The government tells us we need flood control and comes to straighten the
creek in our pasture. The engineer on the job tells us the creek is now able to
carry off more flood water, but in the process we lost our old willows where
the cows switched flies in the noon shade, and where the owl hooted on a
winter night. We lost the little marshy spot where our fringed gentians

"Some engineers are beginning to have a feeling in their bones that the
meanderings of a creek not only improve the landscape but are a necessary
part of the hydrologic functioning. The ecologist sees clearly that for similar
reasons we can get along with less channel improvement on Round River.
- Also Leopold, from Essays on Conservation from Round River (published

  • NSES Standards:

NSES Content Standard F Science in Personal and Social Perspectives


When an area becomes overpopulated, the environment will become degraded due to the increased use of resources.

Causes of environmental degradation and resource depletion vary from region to region and from country to country.


Internal and external processes of the earth system cause natural hazards, events that change or destroy human and wildlife habitats, damage property, and harm or kill humans. Natural hazards include earthquakes, landslides, wildfires, volcanic eruptions, floods, storms, and even possible impacts of asteroids.

Human activities also can induce hazards through resource acquisition, urban growth, land-use decisions, and waste disposal. Such activities can accelerate many natural changes.

Natural hazards can present personal and societal challenges because misidentifying the change or incorrectly estimating the rate and scale of change may result in either too little attention and significant human costs or too much cost for unneeded preventive measures.

NSES Content Standard B Physical Science

Chemical reactions

Chemical reactions may release or consume energy. Some reactions such as the burning of fossil fuels release large amounts of energy by losing heat and by emitting light. Light can initiate many chemical reactions such as photosynthesis and the evolution of urban smog

  • AAAS Atlas:

The Designed World: Energy Resources

The Living Environment: Flow of Matter in Ecosystems

They Physical Setting: Use of Earth's Resources

  • Benchmarks of Science Literacy

B. The Earth

Fresh water, limited in supply, is essential for some organisms and industrial processes. Water in rivers, lakes, and underground can be depleted or polluted, making it unavailable or unsuitable for life. 4B/M8*

Some material resources are very rare and some exist in great quantities. The ability to obtain and process resources depends on where they are located and the form they are in. As resources are depleted, they may become more difficult to obtain. 4B/M10ab*

The wasteful or unnecessary use of natural resources can limit their availability for other purposes. Restoring depleted soil, forests, or fishing grounds can be difficult and costly. 4B/M11a*

The benefits of Earth's resources-such as fresh water, air, soil, and trees-can be reduced by deliberately or inadvertently polluting them. The atmosphere, the oceans, and the land have a limited capacity to absorb and recycle waste materials. In addition, some materials take a long time to degrade. Therefore, cleaning up polluted air, water, or soil can be difficult and costly. 4B/M11bc*

C. Energy Sources and Use

Some resources are not renewable or renew very slowly. Fuels already accumulated in the earth, for instance, will become more difficult to obtain as the most readily available resources run out. How long the resources will last, however, is difficult to predict. The ultimate limit may be the prohibitive cost of obtaining them. 8C/M10** (SFAA)

By burning fuels, people are releasing large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and transforming chemical energy into thermal energy which spreads throughout the environment. 8C/M11** (BSL)


Student Misconceptions 

Students' ideas about human interactions and use of land and natural resources are  greatly influenced by media and their families.  Students' families may have very strong feelings about land use issues and their effects, based on personal experiences, their vocations, or the media.  Some of these feelings may not be based in scientific fact.  Careful consideration needs to be paid to the source of students' misunderstandings.  It will be important to keep the discussions focused on the science behind the cause and effect relationships.


Students in Mr. T's class have finished learning about the water cycle and have begun to hear about potential spring flooding on the news.  Mr. T takes this opportunity to introduce how land use affects the river systems.  He starts by having students write down what they already know about how land use might affect the river systems when the snow melt starts and spring rains fall.  Students generate ideas about many different factors that increase the amount of water getting into the rivers quickly.  Some students discuss parking lots and other nonporous surfaces that are often near rivers.  Other students mention the draining of wetlands that occurred in the past to increase farmable land.  Another student who lives on a farm mentions some of the methods that are used to drain low spots in fields more quickly to get in spring crops.  Some of the students ask for more information from their classmates about things that are new to them.  Mr. T offers further ideas that have not been mentioned and then asks the students to think about what happens as the rivers rise.  The students know people who have volunteered to sandbag and have seen the dikes, levees, and diversions that have been built to prevent people's houses and businesses from flooding.  The students all agree that this is a good thing.  Mr. T asks the students to think about flooding in a different way.  He asks them to consider what might be good things about flooding - from the river system perspective, not the human perspective.  Students research and present their "Rivers Perspective on Flooding" to the class.  While many students still agree that sandbagging is a good thing, they also understand that the human impacts on the river system are complicated and change the natural system.  (Hoffmann, 2011)


Instructional Notes 

Suggested Labs and Activities

An article available free from NSTA "This article describes how you can explore the interconnectedness of the coal, carbon, hydrologic and rock cycles with a close look at how peat is transformed by pressure over time."  ( 

Information from the Department of Energy includes both formation and usage of fossil fuels in the United States.  ( 

The Mineral Information Institute has put together a whole website full of information about natural resources use and where they come from.  Very good information about the formation of various types of mineral deposits.  This site includes many printables and activities designed to increase student understanding.  ( 

A webquest "The Day After Tomorrow" involves researching and presenting information about the effects of a natural disaster on resources and ecosystems.  This might be a good activity to review some 7th grade life science concepts before state testing. (, 

A very basic lesson plan, but it puts coal formation into context with geologic time.  This might be a lesson that could be integrated into a unit on geologic time, rather than presented separately.  ( 

This is an extensive webquest type activity covering energy and renewable and nonrenewable sources.  There is some good information available that could be used without doing the entire activity. ( 

Instructional suggestions/options

Due to their developmental levels and expanded understanding, students in grades 5-8 can undertake sophisticated study of personal and societal challenges. Building on the foundation established in grades K-4, students can expand their study of health and establish linkages among populations, resources, and environments; they can develop an understanding of natural hazards, the role of technology in relation to personal and societal issues, and learn about risks and personal decisions. Challenges emerge from the knowledge that the products, processes, technologies and inventions of a society can result in pollution and environmental degradation and can involve some level of risk to human health or to the survival of other species.

The study of science-related personal and societal challenges is an important endeavor for science education at the middle level.

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.

Retrieved from: National Science Education Standards 

Instructional Resources 

Additional resources

SciGuide from NSTA "Resources and Human Impact" providing background information for teachers about the earth's natural resources and human use.  (, 

While Minnesota specific mineral resources is not a part of the standard, using local examples often makes the topic more relevant to students.  The Minnesota DNR Division of Lands and Minerals. ( 

Digital Library of Earth Systems Education DLESE's educational resources include lesson plans, scientific data, visualizations, interactive computer models, and virtual field trips-in short, any web-accessible teaching or learning material.

New Vocabulary 


  • finite - there is a certain amount that exists
  • Fossil fuel - Fuel derived from ancient organic remains; e.g. peat, coal, crude oil, and natural gas.
  • Mineral - a natural occurring, inorganic solid with a definite composition and crystal structure
  • non-renewable - a resource of which no more will be created over human time frames
  • Human system -
  • Natural process -
Technology Connections 

A brief animation showing a generalized version of coal formation.  Includes brief description of the steps involved. ( 

Cross Curricular Connections 

Social Studies - Land use is a recurring theme in social studies as is the repercussions when resources have been abused or misused.


Assessment of Students

Create a flowchart, timeline, or other graphic organizer to depict your knowledge of the process of the formation of fossil fuels.

Write a short story that describes the life of a drop of oil. Include details about how oil is formed, and follow the oil drop through its entire life until it is ultimately consumed by you.

Show how a river is affected by human land use.

Assessment of Teachers

These topics are often discussed in the media with a bias one way or another.  How can students be prepared to objectively consider the "information" they hear on natural resource use?

Water and land use in Minnesota affects our natural systems.  What are some examples that can be used when teaching these concepts?

Students in your classroom may benefit from or participate in activities that are mentioned as having an affect on natural systems.  How will you address this?


English Language Learners 

According to Lee & Buxton (2010), a couple of approaches are useful for assisting English Language Learners (ELLs): teach content while fostering language development and draw on the so-called "funds of knowledge," which are students' personal experiences from home or community.  For additional details on this see the original NSTA News posting and the official NSTA position statement.

Lee, O., & Buxton, C.A. (2010, April). NSTA Report: Teaching science to English language learners.

English Language Learners. Official NSTA Position Statement.

Extending the Learning 

Many middle school students develop an interest in environmental issues.  Learning more about human impacts in their local area may be of interest.  Local EPA offices, Soil and Water Conservation Districts, DNR offices, and other agencies may be able to provide information to students.  Students who become interested in environmental issues are often frustrated with the global scale of problems, so focusing on local resource use may be very rewarding.

Special Education 

The website has many for specific classroom suggestions for SpEd, ELL   

Students with disabilities. Official NSTA Position Statement.

Concrete and specific examples will help all students to link these concepts with the content knowledge it is related to.  Providing local examples that students have experienced will make the bigger ideas of limited supply and cause and effect more clear.


Classroom Observation 


The concepts from this standard will likely be integrated in to lessons addressing other 8th grade earth science standards.  After the lessons on the formation of minerals it should be easier for students to understand the fact that many of the minerals we use may not be renewed in human lifetimes.  The formation of fossil fuels could be addressed during lessons on sedimentary rocks and so when integrated with the geologic timescale, they may begin to understand that these resources are also nonrenewable in human lifetimes.  Similarly, discussions of land and water use are related to the water-cycle units and human interactions would be a integrated part of those concepts.


Presenting a balanced discussion on these issues is important.  These are complex systems and there are many factors.  It is important to make sure that students understand that there is not one factor responsible.  Students in the classroom may be farmers, miners, etc.  Encourage those students to include their parents' viewpoints in the discussion and perhaps include their thoughts in the classroom to balance other viewpoints.