Authentic Lessons for 21st Century Learning

Drought and the Dust Bowl

Climate, Ecosystems, and Human Impacts

Heather Shaffery, Jacqueline Smith, Carrie Miller-DeBoer | Published: May 25th, 2022 by K20 Center

  • Grade Level Grade Level 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th
  • Subject Subject Science
  • Course Course Biology I, Environmental Science
  • Time Frame Time Frame 6-8 class period(s)
  • Duration More 325 minutes


This extended multi-standard lesson uses the phenomena of the Dust Bowl to understand ecosystem stability and human impacts on the environment. Students examine art, plant-soil interactions, climate data, and agricultural practices to develop concept maps synthesizing the ecosystem-based causes of the Dust Bowl. These concepts are then applied to explain the Earth ecosystem in the movie "Interstellar." The lesson concludes with students writing a claim-evidence-reasoning statement about which ecosystem or human factors prevented another Dust Bowl event during the severe drought of the 1950s.

Essential Question(s)

What factors led to the Dust Bowl, and how was this event documented through the arts and science?



Students identify patterns in weather data over time in Oklahoma. They make predictions about which weather, biological, and human impacts contributed to the Dust Bowl.


Students view period art to understand the ecosystem and cultural effects of the Dust Bowl. They then investigate the interaction of wind, soil, and plants as ecological factors that contributed to the Dust Bowl in Oklahoma.


Students construct concept maps to explain how interactions among climate, human agriculture, and ecosystem features contributed to the Dust Bowl.


Students watch clips from "Interstellar" and create new concept maps to predict and explain which ecosystem interactions led to the movie's catastrophic dust storms.


Using evidence collected during the lesson, students evaluate the claim that soil conservation practices were exclusively responsible for preventing another Dust Bowl event during the drought of the 1950s.


  • Lesson Slides (attached)

  • Germinated grass seeds (one pot per student group)

  • Bare soil (one pot per student group)

  • Straws and fans (e.g. paper or personal battery-operated fans)

  • Measurement tools (e.g., scales, rulers, beakers, or graduated cylinders)

  • Student science notebooks

  • Video, music, graphic, and print media sources related to the Dust Bowl (See the Explore section for examples.)

  • Sticky notes or index cards

  • Large paper (i.e., chart or butcher)


Present graphical data displaying average temperatures and precipitation (e.g., Mesonet, NOAA, USDA, etc.) on slides 4-6 of the lesson slides. Ask students to observe the data, with particular emphasis on comparing the graphs. They should report any patterns, trends, or particularly interesting features they notice, both in individual maps and among the maps. As a class, have students explain what the graphs show and how they would generally interpret them (e.g., a point is the average amount of precipitation for a specific year).

Taken from the Mesonet: Oklahoma Rain Bellringer. Additional graphs are included in the attachments.

A few trends students might observe in the individual maps include:

  • Consistently increasing temperatures since the mid-1990s.

  • Notable above average temperatures in the 1920s, 1950s, and mid-late 1990s.

  • "Record high" average temperature in 2012. (Students might recall this as a severely hot spring and summer.)

  • Extremely dry periods are much drier (larger magnitude) than wetter periods are wet.

  • Since the 1980s, Oklahoma has been, on average, wetter and wet for longer than in previous graph history.

Some possible comparative data trends might include:

  • The most severe dry periods tend to be the hottest periods.

  • The dry period in the 1950s was worse (more dry) than the period in the 1930s.

  • Precipitation amounts vary among data sources, but the temperature values are consistent among graphs.

At this point share with students the NASA Atmospheric Dust Loading map on slide 7. Ask them how these data connect to the temperature and precipitation data. When they have noticed that the extremely high dust concentration over the middle of the United States coincides with the extremely hot, dry period in the 1930s, explain or confirm their hunch that these data are from the Dust Bowl.

NASA Model of the amount of dust in the atmosphere in g/m2 from 1932-1939. Produced from research that tried to explain why the Dust Bowl drought was so intense and centered further north than expected.

If student knowledge on the topic is limited, at this point they only need to know what the Dust Bowl was. If their prior knowledge extends to the causes of the Dust Bowl, simply accept their ideas without confirming or denying them. Go to slide 8. Wrap up by asking students to make and justify claims for each of the following prompts. A graphic organizer can be found in the CER & Rubric attachment.

  1. What factors caused the Dust Bowl?

  2. How was the Dust Bowl historically documented (e.g., how did people make a record of the event)?


Go to slide 10. Students will explore various media to develop: a) hypotheses about the ecosystem effects of the Dust Bowl, and b) an understanding of how the events of the Dust Bowl were documented in media arts. Be sure that students get to observe 3-4 art sources during your allotted time (about 10 minutes per source). While students are engaging with the various media, they should record two different sets of observations in the Explore Graphic Organizer handout: a) what they notice about the ecosystem described or shown in the media, and b) the ways people discussed or interacted with their environment.

Consider having students structure their science notebooks in a two column structure to record their observations.
  • Visual: 1, 2, 3; (Photography books) The Dust Bowl: An Illustrated History, The Dust Bowl Through Lens (Photo Deconstruction Strategy)

  • Audio: Woody Guthrie's "Dust Bowl Ballads," lyrics can be found on the Woody Guthrie website and most songs can be found on YouTube

  • Texts: Passages from Grapes of Wrath and Whose Names are Unknown (found in the "Literature quotes" attachment), and the Dust Bowl poem and personal narrative (found in the "Dust Bowl Poems" attachment)

  • Newspaper Articles: 1 (Items 4-6); 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

Go to slide 12 Referring back to the NOAA Atmospheric Dust Loading data and media, guide students as a class or in small groups to develop a list of factors that contributed to the high dust content and environment they observed in the images. Help students emphasize the lack of plants in the images and the wind required to generate blowing dust. Using this as a jumping off point, students will investigate the effects of wind and plants on soil stability in groups.

Peat pots with grass (mixed species, primarily rye grass) and bare soil. Some students cut down the edges of the pots to expose the surface of the pots' contents for wind.

All student groups must have at least a no cover unit (soil/sand) and a full plant cover unit to compare. You might also include a partially covered (some visible soil) or single-species unit, it could either be a requirement or an optional resource as you see fit. Provide groups with straws (for blowing air), fans (paper, battery-operated, rotating, etc.), as well as collection and measurement tools to conduct their investigations. Have them record what conditions they investigate, the data they collect, and what conclusions they draw from the work. Encourage them to look at a cross-section or side-view of their experimental units so they can observe the structure of the system in different conditions.

Emphasis at this point in the lesson is in making connections between the agriculture and its effects on the Southern Great Plains ecosystem. The clips noted above are highly descriptive without implicating agriculture as an explicit cause of the Dust Bowl. Students should add to their Explore Graphic Organizer, taking careful note of why some farmers and ranchers objected to The Great Plow Up, and how they described the native ecosystem and agricultural landscapes.


Students will create Concept Card Maps to help synthesize their understanding around the ideas they've developed from the art, science, and agricultural explorations. Go to slide 20. To generate a collection of concepts, remind students what activities they have done to this point and ask them to detail what they learned or explored in each.

Go to slide 21. Using the class set of concepts, have students create concept maps that tell the story of the Dust Bowl. This activity can be successfully executed in student groups of 3-4 using sticky notes and chart paper.

Go to slide 22. Have students explain how they constructed their concept maps to another student group. These discussions should include explanations of which art and science evidence students used and how they used it to put their concepts together.

From here, students should also come to understand the changes in agricultural practices focused on soil conservation, in response to the Dust Bowl. Ken Burns clips are suggested below to help provide information, but this would also be an excellent opportunity to include the local community (i.e., farmers, 4-H resources, extension agents) to teach students about sustainable farming practices.

The following Ken Burns The Dust Bowl clips might be useful:

  • "Introduction" (to 1:52): Recaps the severity and length of the Dust Bowl

  • "Memory And Hope" (from 1:35-5:11): Covers the federal dilemma about rescuing the Dust Bowl area and creation of Soil Conservation Service.

  • "They Got That Right" (to 3:24): Describes FDR's soil conservation tour, the state of the Southern Great Plains, and the view of those who stayed.

  • "Higher Ground" (from 5:47-9:53 ) & "Return of the Rain" (10:01): Details soil conservation, Great Plains restoration, and the Dust Bowl's end.

Go to slide 23. To conclude the Explain activity, have students construct a simple equation for the Oklahoma Dust Bowl.(i.e. _______________ + __________________ + _______________ = Dust Bowl). This mathematical representation should include factors students observed in the data, investigations, and discussions, but does not have to include actual numbers. For example, "Over-plowing + Drought + Wind = Dust Bowl" or "Wind x (High Temperature + Low Rain) + Agricultural Practices = Dust Bowl" would both be accurate equations. The point is not complexity, but to have students intentionally synthesize their learning into a summary.


In the movie Interstellar, Earth experiences events which parallel the Dust Bowl. Using clips of Interstellar as a point of comparison, students will create new concept maps to predict the reasons for the dust storms in the movie. Use the following three clips (listed as times) to develop modified concepts:

  1. 2:40-3:30 (death of wheat/crops)

  2. 17:10-19:40 (dust storm)

  3. 27:57-29:15 (scientific and social context)

Go to slide 24. Have students review their Dust Bowl concept lists to remove factors that don't apply to Interstellar and add new factors which do. For example, "blight" would be a new concept for the movie which did not come up in their Dust Bowl list. Go to slide 25. Using the new list of concepts, have student create new concept maps to address the prompt below. After, have student groups share with one another, or the entire class, as was done in the Explain portion.


To conclude the lesson, students will circle back to their climate graphs from the Engage. If they did not make the connection before, help students identify the drought of the 1950s on the temperature and precipitation graphs. Go to slide 26. Students will evaluate the claim below, supporting their support or rejection of it using all of the evidence they have collected over the course of the lesson. A student handout and rubric are included in the "CER & Rubric" and possible modifications are included in the "CER Scaffold Suggestions" attachments.

Evidence sources include:

  • Observations from art

  • Observations and data from grass investigation

  • Observations from Ken Burns clips

  • Dust Bowl and Interstellar concept maps