People and the Planet

PopEd Launches New Edition of Middle School Curriculum

In time for the 2017-18 school year, PopEd launched an ambitious new curriculum. Aimed at teaching middle school students about population trends, their impacts, and our paths to a sustainable future, People and the Planet develops students’ understanding of the interdependence of people, the environment, and our connections as a global family. This fourth edition of People and the Planet not only updates already popular lesson plans, but includes many new ones that reflect current environmental and social issues relating to population. The curriculum addresses the latest content standards across a range of disciplines and incorporates innovative ways for teachers to measure students’ grasp of the concepts.

As citizens growing up in the 21st century, students face innumerable global challenges: climate change, global wealth gaps, water scarcity, deforestation and biodiversity loss, gender inequality, and more. But as tomorrow’s leaders, voters, and policy makers, they are also in a position to steer our planet toward a sustainable future.

While People and the Planet originally debuted in 1996, this is the first edition to be produced online. The online format has many new features and a number of activities that were not available in previous editions. The home page introduces teachers to the seven units: The History of Population Growth, Population Concepts, Land Resources, Water Resources, Air Pollution and Solid Waste, Our Global Family, and Sustainable Future. Each unit includes a background reading and lesson plans — 41 in all. There are also short case studies featuring specific stories of challenges and crises (like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and overfishing of Bluefin tuna) but also inspiring projects like the Nashua River clean-up and Malala’s work to promote girls’ education.

The content and teaching techniques employed in People and the Planet activities make them relevant in today’s classroom and representative of best practice instruction. To keep students engaged, lessons use a mix of memorable, hands-on strategies including inquiry, games, role-playing, debate, small group problem solving, science labs, and more. The activities also require students to use higher order thinking skills to tackle complex real-world problems. This encourages learning to be applied outside of the classroom and prepares students to make informed decisions as global citizens in the years ahead.

The blend of real-world content and higher order thinking make People and the Planet activities an ideal match for addressing current educational standards including Common Core, Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), and the National Curriculum Standards for Social Studies. Both the units and individual activities can be integrated across subject areas to allow for interdisciplinary learning and easy incorporation into existing curricula.

Each unit in People and the Planet includes a summative assessment. These are project-based and designed to measure student learning on key unit concepts, while building skills such as writing, designing, policy analysis, and advocacy. Some of the assessment projects reinforce concepts learned (like creating a trivia game to test each other’s command of demographic terms and trends). Others challenge students to design ads, comic strips, eco-friendly products, and community service action plans. To enhance the lessons, People and the Planet provides teachers with over 30 infographics on unit topics and dozens of suggested resources (books, websites, videos, and articles).

The new People and the Planet includes 22 of the teaching activities from previous editions. The other 17 activities are new to the curriculum. Here’s a sampling of some of those new activities.

Almighty Aquifers: Aquifer depletion is threatening water resources around the globe. As the human population grows, so does the demand for groundwater. In this board game, students play the roles of different states drawing from the Ogallala Aquifer underneath the High Plains. Each round of play represents a decade (1950-2000) and the amount of water withdrawn mirrors the demand from each state during that time period.

Fracked or Fiction: Students analyze a dozen different pieces of data on fracking, including articles, graphs, charts, and maps from a variety of sources (government agencies, energy industries, environmental advocacy groups, and mainstream news outlets) to determine bias, gather information, and, ultimately, form their own opinions about fracking.

Meat of the Matter: A quarter of the planet’s ice-free land is used for livestock grazing and a third of cropland goes to produce food for livestock. Meanwhile, we need to grow more food for our human population. In this activity, students graph global meat consumption, use bingo chips to explore the environmental impact of four different types of protein, and discuss the pros and cons of a shifting global diet.

Population Future: According to the UN, 11 billion people are projected to be on the planet by 2100. Much of that growth will be in sub-Saharan Africa. In this graphing activity, students draw gridded bars to represent the population sizes of world regions in 1980, 2015, 2050, and 2100. They also analyze fertility and mortality trends for the past, present, and future.

The Secret Life of Stuff: As population and affluence grow around the globe, so does the demand for more “stuff.” In this STEM-based activity, students compare the life cycle stages of four everyday products (jeans, earbuds, sneakers, and a lamp) in order to hypothesize which item has the lowest environmental footprint. They then pick one product and brainstorm improvements that could be made along the product’s life to minimize its eco-impact.

Lessons for Life: There is a strong link between education and fertility; the more education women have, the more likely they are to have small families. Raising the status of women and making education equally available to girls and boys is key to breaking the complex cycle of poverty that traps so many women around the world. In this activity, students read the story of two girls in an Ethiopian village with different educational opportunities. They also view photo essays of girls around the world describing their day-to-day routines and their hopes for the future.

People and the Planet is password protected. Teachers have the option of accessing the entire curricula online or downloading individual units. More information is available at

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