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Feeling the Heat

Originally appears in the Winter 2016 issue

There are now more than 300 cities in the world with more than one million inhabitants[1].  Many of the materials used to construct those cities do not reflect heat well, and thus increased urbanization has led to a world-wide phenomenon now known as the urban heat island[2].  Those materials absorb heat radiation and release it slowly back into the atmosphere[3].  As a result, urban communities can be as much as 20 degrees Fahrenheit (11 degrees Celsius) warmer than the surrounding rural communities[4]. This human-created temperature difference results in “islands” of heat surrounded by areas of undisturbed cooler temperatures.

It wasn’t until I started incorporating lessons on urban ecology that I actually began to notice the types and amount of concrete, pavers, and asphalt that were used in the construction of our school campus, and how biodiversity had been stifled by this process. It was time for me to challenge my students to examine the hard surfaces on our campus. Their observations and questions would become the foundation of our study of the effects of urbanization, both on the natural environment and on human health and well-being.  From these observations I have created a series of mapping activities that engage middle school students to explore the issues associated with the heat island effect. I share them with you here in hopes that you can use them with your own classes.

Studying the effects of man-made materials on the natural environment encourages students to examine their local surroundings and collect authentic data. At the present time, many ecology units focus on undisturbed ecosystems. Incorporating urban ecology lessons into these traditional units gets science students outside, in direct contact with their everyday surroundings. When students study our campus’ limited vegetation, they begin to appreciate these natural elements and how they are able to endure the increased heat caused by urbanization.

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Susan Ferguson teaches 7th grade science at Highland Junior High in Mesa, Arizona.


  1. Official U.S. Government information about the Global Positioning System (GPS) and related topics. (2013). Retrieved from
  1. How does GPS work? Retrieved from
  1. National Geographic. GIS (geographic information system). Retrieved from
  1. Teach Engineering. (2015). What is GIS? Retrieved from
  1. National Geographic. Urban heat island. Retrieved from
  1. EPA. (2015). Heat Island Effect. Retrieved from


[1] Barnett, M., Vaughn, E., & Cotter, L. (2011). Urban environmental education: Leveraging technology and ecology to engage in studying the environment. International Research in Geographical and Environmental Education, 20(3), 199-214.

[2]  Chow, W., Brennan, D., Brazel, A. (2012). Urban heat island research in Phoenix, Arizona. American Meteorlogical Society, 4, 517-530.

[3] Harlan, S., Boudreau, D. (2012). Human Nature. Chain Reaction/Arizona State University, 7(1), 4-5.

[4] Zrioka, P. (2012). Paving the way to a cooler future. Chain Reaction/Arizona State University, 7(1), 6-7.

[5] Miller, J. (2005). Biodiversity conservation and the extinction of experience. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 20(8), 430-434.