Primary Sources in Science Classrooms: Coal River and Human Impacts on Earth’s Systems

This post was written by Trey Smith, the Library of Congress 2015-16 Science Teacher in Residence.

Pollution haze hanging over the valley. Mary Hufford, 1995

Pollution haze hanging over the valley. Mary Hufford, 1995

Individually and collectively humans exert both positive and negative influences on Earth’s systems. Teachers and students studying the interactions among Earth’s atmosphere, hydrosphere, geosphere, and biosphere and related human activity can explore images, manuscripts, and recorded oral history interviews from the Coal River community in West Virginia. The Coal River Folklife Collection includes 718 sound clips, 1,256 photographs, and 10 manuscripts collected and curated by the Library’s American Folklife Center between 1992 and 1999. The collection provides a nuanced and necessary look at how agriculture, industry, and everyday human activity impact Earth’s systems.

Begin a series of lessons or a unit on human interactions with Earth’s systems by facilitating a student-driven analysis of a photo showing a stretch of the Coal River watershed. Students might notice the shape of the land and visible presence of human activity. Students might wonder:

  • Where and when was this photo taken?
  • What geologic processes gave the land its shape?
  • Why are the human-created structures located where they are?

Students may notice and wonder about the atmospheric haze in the photo. Provide them with the bibliographic record to spur conversation and elicit further questions.

Bernice Springston, of B&T Logging Contractors, and Danny Williams, of Clay's Branch, cutting Yellow Poplar in Canterbury Hollow on Rock Creek. Lyntha Scott Eller, 1995

Bernice Springston, of B&T Logging Contractors, and Danny Williams, of Clay’s Branch, cutting Yellow Poplar in Canterbury Hollow on Rock Creek. Lyntha Scott Eiler, 1995

Aerial view of Mountaintop removal and reclamation landscapes. Lyntha Scott Eiler, 1995

Aerial view of Mountaintop removal and reclamation landscapes. Lyntha Scott Eiler, 1995

Using a gallery walk or jigsaw method, share additional primary sources with students.

As students analyze each item, ask them to consider both the positive and negative aspects of human interactions with the environment.

  • What cause and effect relationships are present?
  • Are the interactions sustainable? Transformative?

Facilitate conversation amongst students that explores multiple perspectives. Essays written by the collection creators emphasize that the issues related to human interactions with the Coal River watershed are complex. For instance, the collection illuminates the practices and history of ginseng harvesting in the region.

The collection also highlights community efforts to respond to changes in the environment due to human activity.

Trees plotted on a map by volunteers for the Appalachian Forest Action Project of the Lucy Braun Association for the Mixed Mesophytic Forest and Trees for the Planet. Lyntha Scott Eiler, 1996

Trees plotted on a map by volunteers for the Appalachian Forest Action Project of the Lucy Braun Association for the Mixed Mesophytic Forest and Trees for the Planet. Lyntha Scott Eiler, 1996

Human and environmental health are common themes throughout the items in the collection. Community action and citizen science efforts documented in the collection provide models for students interested in documenting and addressing issues in their own communities. Students, for instance, might consider collecting oral history interviews as part of an exploration of how humans interact with the local environment. Student analysis of primary sources from the Coal River community and artifacts from their own communities can reveal the varied ways in which humans impact Earth’s systems.

As you explore the collection, what other stories about humans and the environment do you see?

2 Comments

  1. JOSE CORTEZ
    May 23, 2016 at 10:57 am

    Excellent article; It has been very useful for activities of environmental issues, thanks

  2. antonio ricardo da silva
    June 27, 2016 at 7:35 am

    Muito bom artigo.

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