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Lesson Plans: Urban Heat Island

Urban Heat Island Lesson Plans

Background Information PDF   This Urban Heat Island Unit can be used in the classroom in a variety of ways. The full sequence of lessons allows students to explore the abiotic (concept 1) and biotic factors (concept 2) involved in this phenomenon. The abiotic lessons generally include opportunities for students to think about interactions with living organisms through the synthesis and discussion questions. Concept 3 allows student to apply concepts 1 and 2 toward mitigation of the Urban Heat Island using the engineering design process.


Concept 1: Abiotic Factors

In this first set of lessons, students can:
  • predict and measure microclimates in our urban environment, documenting the interactions between man-made and natural components of the built environment in your schoolyard as well as the Phoenix metropolitan area.
  • discover for themselves how the Urban Heat Island functions as a nighttime phenomenon.
These lessons include:
  • Lesson 1. The Natural and Built Environment Model with images (exploration outside and inside modeling activity) PDF
  • Lesson 2. Surface Temperatures in Microclimates (exploration outside) PDF
  • Lesson 3. Temperature Experiment (experiment outside) PDF
  • Lesson 4. Predicting Temperatures with images (exploration inside) PDF
  • Lesson 5. It’s All About Image with images (exploration inside) PDF
Extra resources:
  • Lesson 1 pictures PDF ) and key PDF
  • Lesson 4 pictures PDF
  • Lesson 5 pictures part 1 PDF ) and part 2 – sorting PDF
  • slide set: The Sun and Heat Basics (simple physics of heat flow, absorption and storage; effects of heat on plants and animals) PDF
  • Historical Aerial Photograph Interpretation lesson to analyze patterns of urban development in the Phoenix Valley over time. link
  • Chain Reaction Magazine online link) PDF

This complete sequence will gradually allow students to discover the nuances of the UHI phenomenon at their local level, as well as general landscape patterns.

Possible modifications: Each of the lessons could be used alone. A minimal overview of UHI could be achieved with lessons 2 and 5.

Lesson 1 asks students to contemplate the differences in materials between built and natural objects and leads them to understand how the built environment is inherent to urban ecosystems. (This step may not be necessary for older students or those with prior exposure to urban/rural comparisons).

Lesson 2 leads students to decipher the abiotic factors that affect temperature, beginning with their own outdoor study site.

Lesson 3. Based on preliminary observations, students design a complete experiment to test hypotheses about temperature at their study site. (This step is not required to convey the basic UHI concepts, but does include many science process standards. This lesson could replace Lesson 2 for older or more sophisticated students).

Lesson 4 builds on a local understanding of temperature patterns and extends it to general environments. It also introduces the concept of infra red energy and imagery. (This step may not be necessary for students who already understand how to interpret IR images).

Lesson 5 extrapolates to the larger urban landscape using infrared photos and permits students to discover the heat radiation from built surfaces that defines the Urban Heat Island as a nighttime phenomenon. (This lesson is essential to students discovering the UHI through inquiry. It could replace Lesson 4 for older or more sophisticated students).

Extra resources:

The slide set, Sun and Heat Basics, provides background information in an interactive way. However, it delivers some content that the lessons are designed to reveal through student inquiry. Thus, it is better used in short segments as supporting materials, after students have explored each topic themselves. The images may help to reinforce these concepts. Note that the first subject is the nature of the sun and how its radiation affects Earth, which is not explicitly covered by the lessons and provides a broader context for the lesson explorations.

The lesson plans guide the use of Chain Reaction articles as extensions.



Concept 2: Biotic Factors

After students understand how temperature functions in the abiotic environment, they can apply knowledge of their study site to explore how organisms interact within this context. Students can:
  • observe real and test simulated plant evapotransipiration
  • simulate thermoregulatory behavior of a lizard in various outdoor microclimates
  • test the effects of microclimate on bird abundance and diversity
  • solve problems related to human heat illnesses
  • explore and document their personal experience with heat in their community
These lessons include:
  • Lesson 1. Evapotranspiration in the Urban Heat Island (exploration and experiment outside) PDF
  • Lesson 2. Lizard Leap-a-Meter (exploration outside) PDF
  • Lesson 3. Where Are the Birds? (experiment outside) (pdf
  • Lesson 4. Human Heat Illness with images (exploration inside or outside) PDF
  • Lesson 5. Photovoice (ongoing independent exploration, classroom discussion and synthesis) PDF
Extra resources:
  • Lesson 4. heat illness scenarios PDF

Each of these lessons could be used alone to support isolated science standards in various grades. For teaching about the UHI, this above sequence is useful because it roughly follows a progression of energy through the trophic levels of an ecosystem. Students can make this analogy and then discover that plants are the foundation of the ecosystem in other ways as well. Using the human lessons as a culmination, illustrates how dependent we are on the other components of our environment and conceptually refers back to the first lesson about the built structures we create. However, both lessons 4 and 5 could be used as an introduction because they address the question, why should we care? Lesson 4 walks students through imagined scenarios relevant to them and raises concerns about health risks that they and their families may face as a result of the UHI. Lesson 5 allows students to personally document the real effects of heat in their lives and communities.

 Lesson 1. By starting with plants, students can see that plants have their own biotic reaction to heat, but also mitigate heat though evapotranspiration and shade, changing the abiotic environment for other organisms. The concepts of Lesson 1 are essential to a complete understanding of how heat operates in the environment and the lesson provides data about the field context for Lessons 2 and 3.

The next three lessons are similar in that they help students study the responses of animals to temperature, but they are each unique in their level of analysis and methods of inquiry. Teachers could include any or all of them in the unit.

Lesson 2 focuses on individuals and their behavioral responses to temperature by simulating lizards’ (ectotherms) movements through the environment. There are also obvious connections to the concepts of adaptation by natural selection and physiological responses.

Lesson 3 is a field experiment that focuses on population abundance of local birds (endotherms), with respect to variation in temperature within the environment.

Lesson 4 extends knowledge gained in lessons 2 and 3 about animal responses to practical applications for society, i.e. medical treatment and behavioral changes that address human heat illnesses.

Lesson 5 also investigates human responses to heat at a societal level by turning students into photo journalists/anthropologists/autobiographers. They explore their own experience with the impacts of the Urban Heat Island. This lesson is perhaps most productive as an ongoing assignment throughout the duration of the unit, because interesting patterns can emerge as students learn more about the UHI phenomenon and blend this scientific information into their own changing perceptions. This lesson satisfies several social studies standards and can be used to teach sustainability concepts. It provides an opportunity for public action at the community level.

Some of the biotic lesson plans also guide the use of Chain Reaction articles as extensions.



Concept 3:  Mitigating the Urban Heat Island though Engineering Design

This set of activities was developed in conjunction with ASU’s Learning through Engineering Design Project.

Students learn about heat transfer with respect to various colors and substances while testing potential construction and insulation materials. Then lessons lead students through the interative engineering design process with the result of building a thermally efficient house.