Educator Spotlight: Observing Our Changing Earth

Mary Hanan led her middle school science students on a year-long study of specific plots of land. Students made observations and collected data to demonstrate how their plot of land changed over time.

Mary Hanan is a sixth-grade science teacher at Riverside Meadows Intermediate School in Plumas Lake, California. Photo courtesy Mary Hanan

Could you give an overview of your National Geographic Educator Certification project, which you called “Piece of Earth?”

I wanted my sixth-grade students to understand that scientific study doesn’t have to happen in a jungle or a far-off land. It can happen right in their own backyard. There is so much for students to learn about their world right in their own community.

For this project, students chose a literal piece of Earth: a small plot of land in a nearby vacant lot. PVC pipes, hula hoops, and hoses all work well as plot boundaries. We returned to the vacant lot every two to three weeks throughout the school year to observe and investigate our pieces of Earth. During the course of the year, students engaged with many of the Next Generation Science Standards for sixth grade, including learning about energy, weather, cells, and organisms.

Students observed the same plot of land throughout the year. Photo by Mary Hanan

How did students react to the Piece of Earth project, and how did their reactions change throughout the year?

At the beginning of the project, students didn’t give a second thought to the “empty” land around them. Initially, for them, the fun of the project was the freedom that came with going outside the confining walls of the classroom.

But as the months passed, the weather changed, the rain fell, the dead grass gave way to green sprouts, and students started realizing “something was happening.”

Throughout the year students recorded changes with pictures and data, like temperature and precipitation records. Students were able to look back and realize their piece of Earth looked nothing like it did at the beginning of the year.

By the end of the year, as students compiled their data, pictures, and observations into a slide show, students were flabbergasted by the change they had witnessed. More than one student expressed, “I didn’t think there was going to be so much change.”

Educators: Watch Mary’s full capstone video here

Educators: Download full lesson plan here

How did the project impact students in terms of their scientific thinking?

Because students were out in the field, they became familiar with many scientific terms and measurements they would normally not have used. Students measured temperature, humidity, soil composition, soil pH, and precipitation. They practiced orienteering and used technology like iPads and Google Slides to organize data into charts and graphs that displayed measurements such as plant growth. Students employed a variety of skills to help them make claims, use evidence, and apply reasoning while documenting changes in their piece of Earth.

What advice do you have for other educators embarking on long-term hands-on science projects?

Start with an idea. Then be flexible and let the idea take on its own life. You don’t have to come up with your initial idea by yourself; research and talk to other educators. Begin with your idea, and let your students’ enthusiasm guide you. It’s important to be willing to change to accommodate students’ interests.

Students collected data throughout the year. Photo by Mary Hanan

Who or what inspired you to pursue teaching?

My love for science was inspired by my grandfather, who had a large farm and animals galore. Science is so amazing, and it is everything around us. The scientists of past and present motivated me to explore and be curious. Eventually, I knew my goal was to inspire students to love science, as my grandfather had inspired me. I knew I wanted to do this not by having students read a science book but by closing the book and taking learning beyond the classroom.


This interview has been edited and condensed.

Interested in joining Mary as a National Geographic Certified Educator? Learn more at

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