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NOVA scienceNOW: Maya

Viewing Ideas

Before Watching

  1. Locate and research Mayan cities. Help students learn where Mexico and Central America are located. Have them find these areas on a world map. Tell them that the ancient Mayan population numbered in the millions. To help students better understand how widespread Mayan culture and civilization was, assign groups of students an ancient city (you might choose Tikal, Copán, Mérída, Bonampaque, and Palenque) to research on the Internet. Have each group discover in what present-day country their city is located, and in what areas any ruins can be found. (The cities are located in the following countries: Tikal, Guatemala; Copán, Honduras; Mérída, Mexico; Bonampaque, Mexico; and Palenque, Mexico.) Students might also want to note other pertinent information, such as details about the people and their lives. After students complete their research, have them draw a map of the country, mark their city's location on the map, and label and draw any ruins they discovered in their research. If they like, students can also include notes, art, or photos of some of the other details that they learned about the Mayans. Student groups can present their maps to the class.

  2. Make a time line of Mayan civilization. Ask students why it is important to understand what life was like hundreds or thousands of years ago. Why is it important to investigate past cultures? (We can often learn about our own culture by studying past cultures.) Have the class make a time line of Mayan civilization. Possible time periods: all of B.C., A.D. 100-900, A.D. 901-1541. Have students write and draw information on index cards or stock paper. They should include skills and technologies that were developed (e.g., farming around B.C. 2000, writing around B.C. 700, solar calendar around B.C. 400), the approximate beginning and end of cities (e.g., Teotihuacan: B.C. 200-A.D. 600, Tikal: B.C. 200-A.D. 900), the arrival of other groups (e.g., the Spanish, in particular Hernandez de Cordoba), the appearance of new diseases, and conflicts that arose (e.g., the Spanish conquered the Maya around A.D. 1540). When the class is finished, have groups order their cards chronologically and clip them, using clothespins or paper clips, to a string or rope strung across a wall or the board in the classroom. Have groups present their time line section.

  3. Create a display of Mayan culture and technology. Divide the class into groups, and have students use the Mayan time line as a starting point for cultural information. Provide art supplies to each group and ask one group to make a clay or cardboard Mayan pyramid, one group to make a chart showing and explaining a Mayan calendar (Mayans understood that the year was slightly longer than 365 days), one group to demonstrate the Mayan writing system by making a sample page from a book, and one group to illustrate and explain a Mayan myth. Display student work.

After Watching

  1. Consider the positives and negatives of technological developments. The segment concludes by suggesting that Mayan civilization and technology may have contributed to a serious drought that resulted in the fall of some Mayan cities. Technological inventions and developments often have "good news, bad news" aspects to them. Brainstorm how this may have been the case for some Mayan cities such as Tikal, and then extend the discussion to consider 20th- and 21st-century technological developments. (A highly developed irrigation system allows a culture to develop and thrive, but it can deplete water resources and may result in land and water pollution via hazardous chemicals, such as pesticides; automobiles, trains, and planes allow people to travel, but the exhaust from their engines pollutes the environment; computers have abundant uses, including in medical devices that help people live longer lives, but computers also contain hazardous waste material.)

  2. Brainstorm and research actual spin-offs for NASA technologies. Remote sensing is a technology that was used at least 150 years ago for topographic map-making using images taken by cameras attached to balloons, and later, it was used by the military to obtain aerial views of large ground areas. Remote sensing technology has been included in satellites and adapted by NASA for many uses such as observing Earth's weather patterns and locating natural resources. Because satellite remote sensing can detect infrared radiation and reveal hidden land details on computer-generated maps, scientists in the program segment used it to locate Mayan ruins. Have students brainstorm familiar materials or technologies that were designed for a specific purpose and that later proved useful for everyday life. Students may choose to look at technologies developed by NASA. (Some materials include Teflon, Tang, freeze-dried ice cream, and memory foam [which is now used for pillows and mattresses but was developed to pad the seats on spacecrafts.]) Have student teams visit Covering the Cutting Edge: 25 Years of NASA Tech Briefs ( or NASA Spinoffs Extend Life on Earth (, and choose two technologies to research and present to the class.

  3. Experiment to find out how fertilizers affect plant growth. In the program segment, scientists used remote-sensing satellites to locate areas where Mayan structures seeped limestone into the soil and changed the vegetation. These areas show up as lighter in the computer-generated maps. Consider with students how excess limestone or other minerals in the soil might change the vegetation of a region. Divide the class into groups. Have each group grow grass or beans. (Note: Choose only one type of plant for the class to grow.) Ask groups to set up a control and a test plant, and have groups observe and keep a record of the effect of fertilizers enriched with specific (and different for each group) minerals. Fertilizers you might use include powdered lime dissolved in water (see package instructions), ashes from the fireplace, ammonium nitrate fertilizer, or calcium carbonate from the school's laboratory. You might choose to have two groups test each fertilizer to see if they get different results. Have students share their findings.

Links and Books

Web Sites

NOVA scienceNOW
Offers Mayan-related resources, streamed video, reports by experts, and an activity that allows one to explore a 2,000 year old Mayan mural.

Collapse: Why Do Civilizations Fall? The Maya
Discusses Mayan territory and the collapse of Copán, a Mayan site located in western Honduras.

Making Sense of the Mayan Collapse

Describes scientists' work using remote sensing to identify the location of Mayan ruins in the Guatemalan jungle.

Maya Civilization Time Line
Presents a time line with links to highlighted time line features.


Daily Life in Maya Civilization
by Robert J. Sharer. Greenwood Press, 1996.
Presents a study of Mayan culture and includes the way in which archeologists study Mayan sites and reconstruct what Mayan societies were like.

Eyewitness: Aztec, Inca and Maya
by Elizabeth Baquedano. Dorling Kindersley, 2001.
Introduces students to three different civilizations of the Americas, including the Mayan civilization.

by James Putnam, Peter Hayman, and Geoff Brightling. Dorling Kindersley, 2004.
Includes photographs and descriptions of pyramids in Mexico and Central America.

Teacher's Guide
NOVA scienceNOW: Maya

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