How Teachers Can Make the Most of “The Dust Bowl”

How STEM and Economics Teachers Can Make the Most of “The Dust Bowl”

The Great Plow Up  |  The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same  |  Additional Resources on the Website  |  About the Author  |  About the Image

Lessons and Activities

Black Sunday storm, Ulysses, Kansas, April 14, 1935

The Dust Bowl depicts a morality tale about human’s relationship with the land and the consequences of abuse and poses the question of “Is this a lesson that we can ignore?” At the heart of the film is a social, economic, and environmental history that examines the human causes and responses to the twin catastrophes of the decade-long drought against the overlay of the national Depression. In the two lessons and Whirlwind Activity that explore the environmental science of the Dust Bowl, students gain an understanding of the environmental history and its economic context then and now.

A Man-made Ecological Disaster of Biblical Proportions

The Dust Bowl destroyed farmland, turned prairies into deserts and unleashed a pattern of massive, deadly dust storms that for many seemed to herald the end of the world. In this lesson, students examine the Dust Bowl as a case study on how natural and human-caused factors can change an environment. From this examination, they will explore a past environmental event in their local area. This might involve natural disasters, human activity, or natural disasters with human activity. Students research the event through local news sources, conduct a field study to gather more data, and then compile their information into a video documentary.

The Great Plow Up

The Dust Bowl was a decade-long catastrophe that swept up 100 million acres of topsoil in more than five states. The causes were lax federal farm policies, a land boom, drought, and a collapsed economy. The result was plummeting wheat prices, farm foreclosures, and displaced populations. This lesson explores the history and economics of the Dust Bowl, examining the various uses of the Great Plains, the impact of mechanized farming, the economic rise and fall of early 20th-century wheat production, and the impact of changes in weather. Students view key video segments describing boom and bust years and graphically track wheat yields and prices from 1910 to 1940 through supply-demand-price charts. Students analyze their charts and match their rise and fall to major historical events. In a culminating activity, students will compile their data into a documentary presentation.

The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same

The Dust Bowl was one of the worst man-made ecological disasters in American history when a grassland ecology that took thousands of years to develop was overturned in less than fifty. The result was devastation of the land and economic ruin for thousands of farmers. Are the mistakes of the past being made again? Are we exhausting resources that we should be otherwise managing with care? In this activity, students review the last segment of The Dust Bowl film entitled “The Western Gate” and identify the similarities and differences they see between the Dust Bowl of the 1930s and the use of the Ogallala Aquifer of today. Students formulate a policy for managing the Ogallala Aquifer, developing a geographic profile of the region, a brief history of farming methods then and now, and recommendations for changes in agricultural practices that would reduce the risk of or prevent potential problems like another Dust Bowl.

Additional Resources on the Website

The website for The Dust Bowl contains many features that will enhance viewers experience with the film and students exploration of the lessons. The site will include exerts from the episodes, selections from scripts, archival footage and photographs, music, bibliography, and timelines as well as educational outreach materials and lesson plans. The website will also serve as a base for the overall digital strategy with many interactive tools such as “Share Your Story” and “Send Email Postcards” provide opportunities for people to share their own Dust Bowl stories and experiences and their reactions to The Dust Bowl film.

Selected links from the Website:


About the Author

Greg Timmons, a Social Studies teacher for over 30 years, has also written lessons for the several other series by Ken Burns. He resides in Washington state and Montana.


About the Image

The huge Black Sunday storm — the worst storm of the decade-long Dust Bowl in the southern Plains — as it approaches Ulysses, Kansas, April 14, 1935. Daylight turned to total blackness in mid-afternoon. Courtesy of Library of Congress
Producer: Florentine Films.