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Lesson Plans

Lesson Plan: Inventing smarter cities to minimize extreme heat

December 16, 2021




In this lesson, participants will use simple materials to design a city block for a changing climate —  built for increasingly hot summers and anticipating clean energy and water conservation.


Participants will explore ways to design and build cities that take advantage of smart energy-saving and heat-reducing innovations.


Science, environmental science, design, engineering

Estimated Time

Two 50-minute class sessions. This lesson can be reduced to a single 50-minute class if students simply view and read the material and sketch a design.

Full Lesson


For a google doc version of this lesson, click here.


The West Coast, as well as portions of Western Canada, saw record heat waves in the summer of 2021. Heat waves are nothing new, but these episodes of extreme heat are starting earlier and lasting longer than in the past. To make matters worse, many in places like the Pacific Northwest have not faced heat waves of this magnitude ever and have not prepared for them. For instance, many homes do not have air conditioning as residents have never before needed it during mostly mild summers. As a result, people have died of heat-related causes. But there are ways we can adapt. What can WE as environmental engineers and everyday citizens do to adapt our communities to a changing climate?


  • Heat islands: Urbanized areas that experience higher temperatures than outlying areas. Structures such as buildings, roads and other infrastructure absorb and re-emit the sun’s heat more than natural landscapes such as forests and water bodies. (
  • Urbanized: to become more city-like, or urban
  • Water reclamation: treating and reusing rainwater


  • Graph paper
  • Colored pencils
  • Rulers
  • Computer with internet access (headphones optional)
  • White paint or other white-colored art materials
  • Optional: If time is available to build 3D models of the city block, then building materials such as toilet tissue rolls, cardboard, boxes, tape, glue and scissors should be provided. Instructor might ask students to bring in recyclable cardboard to repurpose for the project.


  • View this lead NewsHour video in its entirety. 
  • As participants watch, they should write down the risks of extreme heat in one column and solutions suggested in the video for building cities to handle extreme heat in another column.
  • Then, participants should read this story about an urban community that is rebuilding to address heat risks: Yonkers residents to see climate friendly landscaping, addressing heat and flooding. As with the NewsHour video, participants should record risks of extreme heat in one column and solutions mentioned in an opposite column.
  • Then participants should take 5 minutes to talk with the whole group to discuss the following:
  1. How do current building/design practices create “heat islands”?
  2. What designs or features might help minimize the effects of extreme heat (as well as increased flooding or power outages) in the places people live, like on city blocks?


Design a city block (20-30 min)

  1. Participants can gather in small groups to work on their designs or work individually
  2.  Decide what your city block could look like. You could base your block design on a space within your own community or use your imagination. List the structures and other elements that you’ll want to include. A city block might contain the following that would be easily accessible: a retail location, a park, a restaurant, an apartment/condo complex, mass transit stops, a bank and a grocery store.  Consider adding other structures to make your city block walkable. Consider places for people to live, to work, to shop, to relax or play, as well as streets and transportation.
  3. Brainstorm what elements from your column of solutions to extreme heat you want to include or integrate into your block design.
  4. Use the colored pencils to plan and sketch out your city block. You may want to color code each structure or feature to indicate types of buildings or heat mitigation measures, as well as use labels. Use the Design Process model below to think about how the group will design and refine the planned block.

  5. After you have worked for 15 minutes, present your “block” to the group or your teacher may decide to do a gallery walk.

(Optional) Day 2: Build your city block (at least 20 min or entire period)

  1. Participants should watch this NewsHour video on an experimental reflective white paint that can lower heat in cities and provide reflective insulation, meaning less need for air conditioning (which burns fossil fuels). As they watch, participants should write down features of the city block design that could be improved with this reflective paint. Consider logistical challenges and limitations, such as glare and private ownership of some structures.
  2. Incorporate ideas for painted surfaces as well as feedback from the previous day into city designs.
  3. Once plans are complete, build it! Use recyclable materials like cardboard brought from home to build your structures. Make sure to indicate surfaces covered by reflective paint and include a key or labels to indicate what heat-minimizing features or other sustainable environmental features.

Share with class, and discuss which features could be incorporated into your community today! Send a picture of your invention or any sketches you made to PBS NewsHour Classroom at or share directly to social media use the hashtag #PBSInvention.


Doug Spicher has been teaching for more than 30 years in Prince George’s and Howard Counties in Maryland. He currently teaches at Wilde Lake Middle School in Columbia, Maryland. Doug has a BS from Youngstown State and an MEd in curriculum from Loyola College. He has written activities for both counties and is a contributor of PHet activities for the University of Colorado at Boulder.