Jump to main content

Sustainability: How Our Actions Affect the Environment

3 reviews


Grade Range
Group Size
4 students
Active Time
3.5 hours
Total Time
3.5 hours
Area of Science
Environmental Science
Key Concepts
Sustainability, environmental impact, carbon footprint
Svenja Lohner, PhD, Science Buddies
Logo for the Your Plan Your Planet initiative from Google


How do our everyday actions contribute to our ecological footprint? Can we change our individual actions to be more environmentally friendly and create a more sustainable lifestyle? In this lesson, students will evaluate their own environmental impact using an online tool called Your Plan, Your Planet, and evaluate simple ways to reduce their ecological footprint as an individual or community.

Learning Objectives

NGSS Alignment

This lesson helps students prepare for these Next Generation Science Standards Performance Expectations:
This lesson focuses on these aspects of NGSS Three Dimensional Learning:

Science & Engineering Practices
Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information. Obtain and combine information from books and/or other reliable media to explain phenomena or solutions to a design problem.

Engaging in Argument from Evidence. Construct and/or support an argument with evidence, data, and/or a model.

Use data to evaluate claims about cause and effect.

Make a claim about the merit of a solution to a problem by citing relevant evidence about how it meets the criteria and constraints of the problem.
Disciplinary Core Ideas
ESS3.C: Human Impacts on Earth Systems. Human activities in agriculture, industry, and everyday life have had major effects on the land, vegetation, streams, ocean, air, and even outer space. But individuals and communities are doing things to help protect Earth's resources and environments. (5-ESS3-1)
Crosscutting Concepts
Cause and Effect: Mechanisms and Prediction. Cause and effect relationships are routinely identified, tested, and used to explain change.


Background Information for Teachers

This section contains a quick review for teachers of the science and concepts covered in this lesson.

Sustainability has become an increasingly important topic over the last century, especially when considering the projected worldwide population growth as shown in Figure 1. But what is sustainability? The United Nations (UN) defines sustainable development as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." To achieve sustainability, the UN advises thinking about three main factors: the economic, social, and environmental impact of our lives. How can we create an economically, socially and environmentally balanced system for our planet and the people on it? This requires a smarter use and fair distribution of natural resources; equal opportunities for education, safety, food, and medicine; and the protection of our environment to maintain functional ecosystems. While all three factors are important, this lesson will focus on the environmental aspect of sustainability.

Graph projecting the growth of the world population

A graph of the world population between 1800 and 2100 shows projections that the human population can grow anywhere from 7.5 billion at the low end to 16.5 billion at the high end.

Figure 1. Projected world population in billions (data from UN).
["World population v3" by Bdm25 is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0, from Wikimedia Commons]

Humans inevitably change their environment through their activities. These activities can have impacts on the environment on a large scale, such as using up limited natural resources, creating lots of waste, or causing air and water pollution. The biggest impacts humans have on our planet are related to the production and consumption of our food, water, energy, and consumer stuff such as clothing, plastic products, or electronic devices (Figure 2).

Logo for the Your Plan Your Planet initiative from Google
Figure 2. Human activities associated with food, water, stuff, and energy production and consumption have the greatest impact on the environment.

In this lesson, students explore how our personal impact on the environment starts with the everyday activities related to our individual food, water, energy, or stuff consumption. Do we attempt to conserve resources when we consume, or do we tend to waste them? Based on the actions we as individuals choose to take, our ecological footprint can be small or large.

Students will use an interactive online tool called Your Plan, Your Planet to learn about the impacts some of their everyday actions can have on the environment. Your Plan, Your Planet will walk students through typical everyday activities, such as showering, washing dishes and laundry, or throwing out spoiled or leftover food. While interacting with the tool, students will reflect on such questions as: Does it make a difference if I use a dishwasher or clean my dishes by hand? How much energy does it take to keep the lights on for a certain period of time? Does it make sense to throw out clothes that I do not wear regularly? How can freezing food leftovers reduce my ecological footprint? What are some simple ways to conserve water or energy at home?

Based on their findings, students will learn that simple behavioral changes on an individual or community level such as recycling stuff, using more energy efficient devices, or wasting less water can help counteract the negative effects we have on the environment and create a more sustainable future for us all.

Prep Work (15 minutes)

Engage (30 minutes)

Explore (120 minutes)

Reflect (60 minutes)


Make Career Connections

Lesson Plan Variations

Free science fair projects.