Physical features influence historic events

Activity: How have natural resources affected population patterns and movement in Wyoming (approximately 80 minutes) 

Learning Objectives

  • Students will analyze the physical geography in the region to determine the impact on movement, human interaction, and government in the region
  • Students will see how the abundance of coal in Wyoming made it the best candidate for the route of the First Transcontinental Railroad, along with geography more accessible for crossing the Rocky Mountains
  • Students will use a variety of maps to explain the effects of physical geography and natural resources on population patterns 
  • Students will see how natural features in their local area (such as coal) have affected their local area


    Wyoming Social Studies Standards (2018 draft) SS8.5.2 Analyze and evaluate how physical features and changes influenced historical events (e.g. route of Union Pacific Railraod, location of Wind River Indian Reservation, state and national parks) and participate in collaborative problem solving and decision making in the selection of professional and personal choices. 

    Wyoming Social Studies Standards (2018 draft) SS8.6.1 Use and evaluate multiple sources of information in diverse formats and media in order to address a question or solve a problem. 



    This is an instructor-guided activity using National Geographic's Geo-Inquiry Process (Ask, Collect, Visualize, Create, Act). 

    Ask  (10 minutes)

    • Use this interactive map to show Wyoming, then zoom into the school's town. Ask students to help you locate their school within the town. 
    • Ask the students what natural features (not man made) do they know around their town? What is their experience with these features? [rivers for fishing, mountains for hunting/camping, range for livestock, etc]
    • Ask what natural features can be used to support livelihoods? Why would people have moved to this area and stayed here, how did they support themselves? [see if any groups can come up with coal]
    • Show a time lapse video (28 seconds) of what a surface coal mine looks and its changes over time  and pictures of underground Sheridan mines or first minute of this black and white film

     Collect data (30 minutes)

    • Split the students into four teams (each team should have one or two laptops) and give each team a list of about 5 or 6 different coal mine locations within about 100 miles of their town. Lists can be created by the instructor a head of time from an Excel file (coming soon) that has all the coal mine locations, addresses, names in Wyoming). Optionally, the instructor may want to assign a specific mine to each student if they all have laptops. 
    • Demonstrate how to enter the locations into this sharable map. First, type in a name or address associated with a coal mine (or latitude/longitude coordinate). Show how to zoom out to see context (some coal mining activity will be visible as students zoom out; other underground or historical coal mines closed for many years may no longer be visible on the map). Then click the Pen button to add a feature. Click on the map to add a marker, then type in the coal mine's name and select the team color (red, blue, green, purple). Remind students not to change or delete locations entered by other students. 
    • Have the students mark down on their list of mines whether the mine they added to the map is visible on the map or not.  

    Visualize/Explore  (20 minutes)

    • After each team has finished entering mine locations the instructor shows the shared map to the entire class and each team can see the mines they "collected" in their team color in comparison to other mines entered by other teams.
    • Ask the students to identify any patterns (e.g. some mines are clustered in northeast Wyoming).
    • The instructor switches to this interactive map and makes all Wyoming's mines visible on the map
    • Ask what might cause these patterns? (coal is only found in some areas, or is abundant in some areas)
    • The instructor checks on coal fields to make them visible and zooms out to the entire country so students can see where coal is available around the country. 
    • Zoom back to Wyoming and show the legend (color-coded by year they opened).
    • Ask the students to identify any patterns (the oldest mines are clustered in southern Wyoming).
    • The instructor make the First Transcontinental Railroad visible on the map.
    • Ask the students, if there are coal fields in the north of Wyoming and the south, what other factors (besides availablility of coal) may have influenced why the railroad went through southern Wyoming?  [mountains]
    • The instructors makes shaded elevation visible on the map and points out that there are many more high mountains in northern Wyoming. 
    • The instructor makes towns in Wyoming visible on the map, color-coded by date the town was founded
    • Ask the students when their town was founded in comparison to towns along the First Continental Railroad
    • The instructor makes other railroads visible on the map
    • Ask students, when did Sheridan's population (substitute with their town) begin to expand? [when railroad was built through Sheridan and coal mining started in Sheridan]
    • Instructors makes railroad ghost towns visible and talks about how once railroads switched to diesel engines, coal was no longer needed along railroads

    Create story/Act on knowledge (20 minutes)

    Start a discussion and have students answer questions (sample worksheet .docx) such as these examples: 

    • How did the closing of the mines along the railroads change population in Sheridan and other towns? What else would it have changed as a result?
    • What else can coal be used for instead of powering railroads?
    • What if fuel for railroads and power plants changes again from diesel and coal to wind or solar - would that change population patterns in Wyoming?