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Essential Purpose

The human response to the characteristics of a physical environment comes with consequences for both the human culture and the physical environment. One such human response is the construction of large dams.

The relationship between the natural environment and human culture is a two-way street. Too often, only one part is asserted: that the form of the natural environment influences (or, in extreme cases, determines) the human culture of a place. Mountains may prove obstacles to communication, but transport technology overcomes the barriers. Climate may limit the growth of certain crops, but irrigation or greenhouse protection can extend a plant’s natural limits. That is not to say that the natural environment does not pose risks: hurricanes, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, or droughts all pose risks to human settlement. But as human technology expands, people are able to adapt to the constraints once placed by the natural environment.

Besides technological adaptation, human culture has increasingly modified the natural environment, shaping it to its needs. Clearing forests for agriculture, paving surfaces for urban areas, damming rivers, exploiting minerals, polluting air, streams and oceans, are all examples of the permanent changes to the natural world resulting from human culture.

Places are the resolution of the forces of nature and adaptations by human culture. Moreover, as this relationship changes over time, so too do places. This unit will focus on how human culture is both influenced by, and adapts to, the natural world. Students should treat a human change to the environment as a diversion of energy to human society from the path it follows in the natural system.

Rather than simply comparing the nature of the physical environment with what people do with it, students should consider human perception. Thus, an environment may be considered hazardous by an objective observer, but explaining human adaptation involves knowing how the environment is perceived by those who use it. People might not be expected to settle on the sides of active volcanoes, as in Central America, or build on the shores of hurricane-prone coasts – that they do requires understanding how they perceive the environment and deal with the risk.

National Geography Standards

These national geography standards are measured by the summative assessment.

Geography Standard 14 (grades 9-12)
How Human Actions Modify the Physical Environment

The student knows and understands how to apply appropriate models and information to understand environment problems.

Therefore, the student is able to develop possible solutions to scenarios of environmental change induced by human modification of the physical environment.

State/Local Standards

States should align these modules to their own state/local standards as appropriate.

Essential Questions

Essential Content

Environment and Society

21st Century Skills

Summative Assessment

This summative assessment is a transfer task that should be reviewed with students prior to completing the lessons in the unit.

Essential Questions Measured by the Summative Assessment:

Printable Student View

Prior Knowledge
Criteria for an Exemplary Response

Now that you have learned about why people build dams; have studied the cultural, economic, and environmental issues involved in the distribution of water; and understand that developing nation's perspectives are not necessarily shared by other nations; you are ready to think about the advantages and disadvantages of building a dam such as the Three Gorges Dam.

The World Commission on Dams, a commission created by the World Bank, has been asked to review some major dam projects from around the world. The Kariba Dam on the Zambezi River is the focus of one of the case studies and will be reviewed for the social, economic and environmental costs and benefits. The commission plans to investigate the pros and cons of building the Kariba Dam.

Read the Letter of Invitation. You are requested to play the role of a member of the World Commission on Dams.

Submit your findings in a written report that provides:

  • An overview of the economic, cultural, and environmental advantages and disadvantages of building this dam
  • An evaluation of the cost, benefits, and impacts of building this dam
  • A recommendation regarding if this was an effective project given today's views
Keep in mind that you need to show evidence of your knowledge of the general political, social, and economic situation concerning the Kariba Dam as well as previous information already learned in class readings about the positive and negative impacts. Further research may be required.

Scoring Guide