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March 23, 2018

Student Reporting Labs STEM Lesson Plan: Design your own Ice Age hiking trail

Use this student-produced PBS video about Wisconsin’s Ice Age Trail to introduce students to the beauty and importance of recreational scenic hiking trails. Then challenge students to design their own!




Science, Math, Social Studies, Geography

Estimated time

One 75-minute class

Essential question

How do hiking trails help to build an appreciation for nature?


The Ice Age National Scenic Trail is a 1,200 mile long, incomplete, recreational hiking trail that travels through an area in Wisconsin shaped by glaciers over 12,000 years ago.

‘Wisconsin’s Ice Age Trail’ video, from PBS NewsHour Student Reporting Labs’ Wauwatosa West High School in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, helps to explain why more than 500 miles of the trail remain unfinished and how nature trails play an important role in our understanding of history.

The main activity uses a topographic map to investigate a part of the trail that includes both finished (East Lake) and unfinished (Rib Lake) segments. Students will create their own path through the area that takes the “most interesting” route from Point A to Point B.

Note: Students should have some familiarity with reading topographic maps.


Warm up activity

Distribute the “Ice Age Trail Images” handout found in the Materials section on the top-right of the web page to small groups of 2-4 students. Ask students to discuss the images. Students may discuss any or all of the following:

• Where were these pictures taken?

• Have you ever seen anything like this before? If so, where?

• How would you describe the images in front of you to someone who hasn’t seen them?What do you think the people in the pictures are doing? Why?

Main activity

  1. Show students the Wisconsin’s Ice Age Trail video below. Emphasize to students that the Ice Age Trail is still being built — so it is people who are determining where the trail should go! Ask students to answer the following (either in small group discussion or in writing):
  • What is the Ice Age Trail? Where is it located?
  • Why is the Ice Age Trail special?
  • What are some problems the Ice Age Trail is facing?

Note: Closed captioning featured on Student Reporting Labs’ videos on Youtube.

2. Ask students in small (2-4) groups, to come up with a list of things that they think would make for a successful scenic trail. Next, mix up the groups (2-4), but keep one person who can speak about their group’s scenic trail in place (some students are more likely to be engaged in smaller groups, but do what works best for you, i.e. present in front of the whole class). Have students look for commonalities and come to a consensus as to what they think would be the best features for a scenic trail to include.

3. Distribute the How would you get from point A to point B? topographic map handout to each student. (It is best if the maps are printed in color; some of the defining features of the map are difficult to distinguish in greyscale.) Ask students to familiarize themselves with the map:

  • What features do you see on the map?
  • What is the scale of the map?
  • What is the contour interval (a line drawn on a topographic map to show ground elevation or depression) of the map?

Explain to students that Point A is the start of a finished (East Lake) segment of the Ice Age Trail, and that Point B is the end of an unfinished (Rib Lake) segment of the Trail.

4. Let students know it’s their turn to draw their own Ice Age Scenic Trail! NewsHour Extra would love to see what they came up with. Share trail maps or pictures of students with their maps via Twitter @NewsHourExtra using #TrailMapPBS or directly with the National Park Service at Ice Age National Scenic Trail.

a. First, have students draw their own trail of the Wisconsin ice age trail spot, from point A to point B — making sure to incorporate as many features of a “successful” scenic trail as they can. Keep in mind that the main goal is to get as close to the “real” East Lake and Rib Lake segments of the Ice Age Trail as possible. You may use a variety of drawing materials depending on time and resources, but remember, some of the most beautiful maps (including pirate maps!) are in fact done with a pencil.

b. After students have completed their trail, have them divide their trail into segments, based on where the trail turns. Each segment (turn) should be marked with a dot.

c. Next, ask students to determine how long, in kilometers, each segment of their trail is (by using the provided scale at the bottom of the map) and the total length of their trail.

d. Finally, distribute the How does the Ice Age Trail get from point A to point B? handout to each student. Ask students to evaluate (either in small group discussion or in writing) how close they came to identifying the “real” East Lake and Rib Lake segments of the Ice Age Trail. Debrief using the following questions:

  • How much like the real Ice Age Trail is the trail you drew?
  • Which trail do you think is better — the real trail, or the one you drew? Why?
  • What is the main difference between the way the East Lake segment of the trail looks, and the Rib Lake segment of the trail looks? Why do you think this is so?
  • When do you envision the Ice Age Trail will be finished? What needs to happen for the trail to be completed?

e. Share your trail maps or pictures of your students with their maps @NewsHourExtra using #TrailMapPBS or contact the Ice Age National Scenic Trail directly!

Extension activities

  • Ask students to calculate the distance from Point A to Point B “as the crow flies” and determine the difference between that straight line distance and the distance of the trail they drew. Ask students to discuss (either in a small group or in writing) why recreational hiking trails generally do not follow a straight line.
  • Ask students to research what the average speed for a person hiking might be. Then, ask students to calculate how long it might take to hike the trail they drew.
  • Teach students how to use a compass! (There is lots of information available online, but a good place to start is here: http://www.learn-orienteering.org/old/) Then challenge students to determine the compass directions they would need to follow for each segment of the trail they drew (assuming the top of the map is North).
  • Invite students to learn more about the different segments of the Ice Age Trail (a good place to start is here: https://www.iceagetrail.org/recommended-hikes/) and have them write a story about what it might be like to hike all or part of the Ice Age Trail.

Samantha Adams is the 12th-grade geoscience teacher at Pan American International High School at Monroe in the Bronx, New York, a specialized high school for Spanish-speaking immigrants who have recently moved to the United States. Samantha has spent summers exploring invasive species of reed in New York’s Piermont Marsh with student researchers and investigating air pollution at NASA Langley Research Center in Virginia. She is a Math for America Master Teacher and has also written curriculum for public radio’s Science Friday.

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  • Standards

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    Relevant National Standards:
      Next Generation Science Standards

      ¥ MS-ESS3-3.C: Human activities have significantly altered the biosphere, sometimes damaging or destroying natural habitats and causing the extinction of other species. But changes to Earth’s environments can have different impacts (negative and positive) for different living things.

      ¥ MS-ETS1-1: Define the criterial and constraints of a a design problem with sufficient precision to ensure a successful solution, taking into account relevant scientific principles and potential impacts on people and the natural environment that may limit possible solutions.

      ¥ HS-ESS-3.1.A: Resource availability has guided the development of human society.

      ¥ HS-ESS-3.3.C: The sustainability of human societies and the biodiversity that supports them requires responsible management of natural resources.

      ¥ Science & Engineering Practices:

      ¥ Apply scientific principles to design an object, tool, process or system.

      ¥ Construct an oral and written argument supported by empirical evidence and scientific reasoning to support or refute an explanation or a model for a phenomenon or a solution to a problem.

      ¥ Design or refine a solution of a complex real-world problem, based on scientific knowledge, student-generated sources of evidence, prioritized criteria and tradeoff considerations.

      Common Core State Standards

      ¥ ELA/Literacy

      ¥ WHST.6-8.7: Conduct short research projects to answer a question, drawing on several sources and generating additional related, focused questions that allow for multiple avenues of explanation.

      ¥ Mathematics

      ¥ MP.2: Reason abstractly and quantitatively. 7.EE.3: Solve multi-step real-life and mathematical problems posed with positive and negative rational numbers in any form, using tools strategically

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