Reduce Your Impact on the Environment

This unit was designed in collaboration with teachers from the Campbell Union School District

How can we reduce our negative impact on the environment? What methods help us sustain and even improve the environment? What factors harm our environment and what can we do about them? This unit examines human environmental impacts, assessing the kinds of solutions that are feasible, and designing and evaluating solutions that could reduce that impact. Students investigate minimizing the impact of humans on water usage, land usage, and pollution in the environment. They explore school impact on energy use, self-monitor and report use of electricity, water, and recycling, calculate the carbon footprint of every student at their school and create a school plan to minimize that impact. In the culminating design challenge, students choose a problem to study, design a solution, and monitor the results.

Educational Outcomes

  • Students study their school’s daily energy usage and its environmental impact.
  • Students self-report and calculate their use of natural resources.
  • Students use a carbon footprint calculator to determine impact on electricity usage, water consumption, or pollution.
  • Students generate and evaluate a practical design solution that addresses the results of a particular human activity

STEAM Integration

Students collect, analyze, and display data as they progress through the unit. Students use a variety of tools to understand their use of energy and in doing so they practice using multiple-digit multiplication with decimals.  The carbon footprint calculator allows students to use an algorithm to multiply across the carbon footprint of all students at their school, and result in creating a school plan to minimize impact. Each lesson strategically brings in various aspects of science, math, and engineering to create a robust STEAM experience for students.


NGSS MS-ESS3-3:  Apply scientific principles to design a method for monitoring and minimizing a human impact on the environment.

CCSS.MATH.CONTENT.6.RP.A.3: Use ratio and rate reasoning to solve real-world and mathematical problems, e.g., by reasoning about tables of equivalent ratios, tape diagrams, double number line diagrams, or equations.

CCSS.MATH.CONTENT.6.SP.B.4: Display numerical data in plots on a number line, including dot plots, histograms, and box plots.

CCSS.MATH.CONTENT.6.SP.B.5: Summarize numerical data sets in relation to their context.

CCSS.MATH.CONTENT.6.NS.B.3: Fluently add, subtract, multiply, and divide multi-digit decimals using the standard algorithm for each operation.

Unit Materials

This unit can be completed using the RAFT Makerspace-in-a-Box kit. The kit contains many items with various attributes useful for different purposes by students. Examples include rigid items for structure such as craft sticks, plastic rods, and cardboard tubes; flexible/cuttable items such as foam, chenille stems, straws, and cardstock for making customized structures; and items serving as connectors such as paper clips, binder clips, and stickers/tape. Note: Some lessons call for additional items not included in the kit. We encourage facilitators to be creative and provide other materials to explore in the lessons. Questions? Email us:

Maker Journal Pages

Students record their learning in Maker Journal pages, sheets containing tasks and prompts specific to each lesson in the unit, including the culminating design challenge. These sheets encourage students to reflect on their learning throughout the unit and can be used as part of a larger student portfolio with which to demonstrate growth in concept knowledge and design skills. These sheets can be copied for students or recreated by students in a bound notebook.

Tips for an Active Classroom

Communication is critical in the design process. Students need to be allowed to talk, stand, and move around to acquire materials. Help students become successful and care for the success of others by asking them to predict problems that might arise in the active environment and ask them to suggest strategies for their own behavior that will ensure a positive working environment for all students and teachers.

Design Thinking Overview

Our integrated STEAM units incorporate a non-linear design thinking model, with each phase being repeatable to allow students to rework and iterate while developing a deeper understanding of the core concepts. The phases of the design thinking model are:

Empathize: Work to fully understand the experience of the user

Define: Process and synthesize findings from empathy work to form a user point of view

Ideate: Explore a wide range and variety of possible ideas for solutions

Prototype: Transform ideas into a physical form with which to learn and interact

Test: Refine prototypes, learn more about the user, and refine original point of view

Video Lesson
This video can be used to provide students with an example of activities they will engage in throughout the unit. Thanks to the Monterey County Office of Education MCAET Center for video production 

Lesson 1: How Much Energy Do We Use at School? (40 min)

Students analyze historical data on their school’s energy usage, create a display of their data, and draw conclusions about the impact of their energy usage. The school’s energy or utility reports will be very useful in helping students develop empathy for their own energy needs and usage.

Learning Targets

  • Students will be able to calculate and understand their energy usage at school
  • Students will be able to create a visual display of the information and communicate about their energy usage at school

Essential Questions

  • How much energy do we use every day at school?
  • What is the impact of the energy we use daily?

Lesson Materials


  1. Present student teams with data from their school’s energy use report spanning the last 5 years. Review it and if possible, a utility bill from the school. The goal is to establish an estimated baseline from which to develop solutions for reduction in school energy use.
  2. If no school energy report or utility bill is available, review Energy Star Data Trends – Energy Use in K-12 Schools as a class. Students try to interpret the graphs to identify trends in energy usage.
  3. Students use the chart in the lesson Maker Journal to calculate their own energy usage and then create a bar graph of the data.
  4. Student teams prepare and share a statement based on their findings on the school’s energy impact and their personal energy usage with the class.
  5. When students have completed their journals, help them to use materials (beans, buttons, cork, etc.) as counters to create a graph of their personal energy usage data. If school data is available, create a class graph to show differences in energy usage over time. These graphs will be used later in the unit to develop solutions for the design challenge.

Sample teacher and student dialog

T: “Today we are going to begin investigating the amount of energy we use every day at school. Our school uses energy that comes from natural resources. Because many of these resources are not renewable and will eventually run out, we will discuss ways to use energy responsibly. Who can name ways that we use energy every day at school?”

S: “Electric lights, water faucets, toilets, water fountains, air conditioning, food prep in the cafeteria, computers and electric appliances, transportation to and from school, etc.”

T: “In order to determine how MUCH energy we use, we’re going to look at our school’s utility bill and/ or calculate our own usage by making some observations and recording and graphing our findings.”


Students discuss and share their bar graphs displaying data on personal and/or school energy usage. They discuss the data in terms of environmental impact and think of an action plan to reduce the impact.

Lesson 2: How Do I Use Natural Resources? (40 min)

Students self-report and calculate their use of natural resources in service of electricity, water, and waste production. Students practice using single digit and double digit multiplication with decimals.

Learning Targets

  • Students will develop their understanding of their own consumption of natural resources in service of developing ideas for the design challenge at the conclusion of this unit.
  • Students will be able to fluently add, subtract, multiply, and divide multi-digit decimals using the standard algorithm for each operation.

Essential Questions

  • How do I use natural resources?
  • How much fossil fuel do I use in a day? In a year?
  • How much water do I use in a day? In a year?



  1. Review highlights from the previous lesson on personal and schoolwide energy use.
  2. Discuss the difference between standard & non-standard units of measure (see sample dialog for examples).
  3. Define the terms “fossil fuel” and “fresh water” together as a class (see Maker Journal).
  4. Show the video: How Do We Meet the Growing Need for Water?
  5. Have students share 1-2 facts about water they learned from the video.
  6. Students work on the first page of the lesson Maker Journal, where they calculate an estimate of their daily and yearly water usage.
  7. Show the video: Energy 101: Electricity Generation.
  8. Students work on the second page of the lesson Maker Journal.
  9. Students share the results of their calculations for daily and annual use of electricity and water.

Sample teacher and student dialog

T: “Now that we have looked at our use of energy and natural resources in “points,” or non-standard units, we will investigate our own use in standard units to get a better understanding of the amount of energy we use every day. What are examples of standard units of measurement?”

S: “(Weight or mass) ounces, pounds, grams; (Distance) inches, feet miles, meters, centimeters, kilometers; (Volume) ounces, quarts, liters; (Electrical energy) volts, watts, amps, etc.”

T: “Use your Maker Journal to estimate the amount of natural resources you used today in your daily activities. The values on the are broad estimates to allow you to get a general sense of the amount of natural resources like water and fossil fuels you used. We will use this information in thinking of ways to reduce your impact on the environment in our upcoming design challenge.”


Student groups discuss and compare their water and electricity usage calculations, deepening their understanding of using math in real world situations.

Lesson 3: Calculate Your Carbon Footprint (30 min)

Students use a Carbon footprint calculator to determine their impact and then research and strategize ways to reduce their carbon footprint. Strategies may be focused on electricity usage, water consumption, pollution, or other environmental factors.

Learning Targets

  • Students will further develop their understanding of the use of natural resources and the impact humans have on their environment.
  • Students will investigate their own impact on the environment and begin thinking of solutions to reduce their impact both at home and school.

Essential Questions

  • What is meant by your “carbon footprint”?
  • What strategies or changes might minimize your carbon footprint?
  • How can you use these suggestions in a plan to reduce your school’s carbon footprint?



  1. Review the previous lesson on calculating daily and annual electricity and water usage.
  2. Think-Pair-Share: Students think individually about ways to use natural resources more carefully and responsibly, share ideas with a partner, and then with the class.
  3. Students go online and research the following: carbon footprint, greenhouse gas, and human impact.
  4. Students use the Carbon Footprint Calculator to calculate their own carbon footprint. They record their findings in the lesson Maker Journal.
  5. Students choose a variable to adjust on the carbon footprint calculator and record the result in the Maker Journal.
  6. Students read Energy Conservation Tips for suggestions on how to reduce energy consumption at home. These practical tips can save people, schools, and businesses money while lower their carbon footprint!
  7. Students list new things in the Maker Journal leading to strategies for minimizing negative environmental impact.
  8. Students create a school plan to minimize impact.

Sample teacher and student dialog

T: “Now that we understand how we use natural resources, we should start to learn more about how our use of these natural resources impacts our environment. Think of a few ways to use natural resources more carefully and responsibly, and then turn to a table partner and share what you came up with.”

S: “We could reuse water bottles. turn off the lights when not in a room, use rainwater for washing cars.”

T: “Resources like the petroleum used to make plastic water bottles are limited on Earth, meaning that once we use them all up, they’re gone forever. If we simply use the limited resources once and then throw them away, we’re wasting our planet’s natural resources. By reducing the amount of electricity and natural resources that we use by reusing water bottles, we can reduce our negative impact on the planet.


Students use the carbon footprint calculator to discover aspects of their own impact on the environment. Students should be encouraged to submit accurate answers without concern for the impact results. At this stage students are discovering the questions that they will attempt to answer in the design challenge phase of this unit.

Design Challenge: Minimizing Environmental Impact (45-60 min)

Students apply their learning from previous lessons on personal/home/school use of natural resources to design and model a solution to minimize the impact of humans on one of these environmental factors (electricity usage, water consumption, or pollution). Students test their designs and describe design features that meet the criteria and constraints for the challenge.

Design Prompts

  • Design a solution to minimize the impact of humans on one of these environmental factors (electricity usage, water consumption, or pollution).
  • How can we test our success against criteria and constraints and improve our designs?


  • RAFT Makerspace-in-a-Box
  • Chart paper or poster paper
  • Markers, pens, pencils
  • Tape
  • Binder clips and/or paper clips
  • Scissors, staplers, hole punches, rulers
  • Computers or mobile devices
  • Internet access
  • Other materials at facilitator’s discretion


  1. Present and explain the design prompt(s) for the challenge (above)
  2. Review and define the criteria and constraints listed below and these terms: iteration, prototype. Alternatively, you can define them together as a class, providing students with voice and choice.
  3. Assign student teams or assign students to specific groups.
  4. Students follow steps in the design process and record their progress in the challenge Maker Journal.
  5. Students share and compare their design solutions, reflect on the data collection/calculations, and provide peer feedback for improvement on future iterations.

The criteria and constraints for this challenge are listed below. Criteria are the requirements for the design or its expected functions or abilities. Constraints are limitations on the design such as time, space, available materials, money, etc. The criteria and constraints are also listed in the Maker Journal for this challenge.

Criteria & Constraints

  • Design reduces the impact of humans on the environment.
  • Design reduces personal carbon footprint.
  • Design is tested over time to track reduction of impact on the environment.
  • Design is built using the materials provided.
  • Design is implemented without excessive hardship on the user.

Ideate Phase

During the ideation phase students should have ample time to discuss and research their ideas and potential impact. All ideas are welcome during the ideation phase, and students should be encouraged to think big. Students should capture their ideas using the Maker Journal or a digital tool (Google doc, other). Keep in mind students may return to this phase as many times as needed.

Prototype Phase

Students select one of the designs from the ideation stage to create using various materials. Initially they will have a rough prototype of the design that should eventually get better as they test it and make refinements. Students may also want to experiment with solutions that focus on changes in behavior. In this case encourage them to create a detailed plan as well as a device that will help to remind them or encourage this change in behavior. Students use the Maker Journal to draw and label their designs. Students may need to return to this phase as they iterate.

Test Phase

Students self evaluate as they test their designs in the Maker Journal. This activity should be focused on brevity and conducted at a brisk pace. Students should be going through ideas, building prototypes and evaluating their designs for at least three or four design cycles. Build time should be quick and designs should be kept simple. Students may return to this phase as they iterate.


Student groups discuss and compare their solutions and give each other feedback on the estimated reduction of impact on the environment as well as the reduction of one’s carbon footprint. Students should also give suggestions for improvements to the design for future iterations. Conduct a whole group discussion to allow all students to share, discuss and compare their solutions. Help students to focus their thinking on data collected and interpreting their calculations to better define the design prompts.