Tracking Trends: Using Fossils for Evidence of Climate Change (Day 1 of 2)

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Students will be able to use fossil data to track, compare, and discuss ancient climate change patterns.

Big Idea

Let your students explore ancient climate change using leaf fossil data to make connections between global temperature changes and carbon emissions.

Notes for the Teacher

At this point in our unit on basic chemistry in biology, students will have read and discussed articles on climate change issues such as: its impact on the ocean, wildfires, glaciers, and the political policy aspect of policy making, completed a virtual lab experiment tracing the impact of climate change on marine organisms, and conducted a personal carbon footprint investigation into their own contribution to climate change.

Today, students will continue to deepen their understanding of climate change trends by exploring climate change utilizing data from the fossil record using this Smithsonian in the Classroom (Fall 2009) "Prehistoric Climate Change and Why it Matters Today" resource guide.  You can also have your students explore the lab through an online interactive platform.  

There are many reasons why I really liked working with this resource:

    1. The writing style, use of graphics, and reading level of the printed materials is appropriate for 9th and 10th graders and the photographs of leaf fossils photocopy well for use with lab groups.
    2. The resource includes math and the analysis of graphs in an authentic way that is accessible to all levels of student comprehension and knowledge of the topic area.
    3. There is an introduction to field science and it is integrated into the study of biology.  This can be valuable to students who often think of scientists as perpetually isolated and stuck in a small, somewhat smelly lab!
    4. This activity puts climate change in a geologic time perspective in a way that is engaging and informative.  Students love to investigate something they've never heard of before and this is one of those ideas that they probably haven't spent much time on in the past.  Novelty is a teacher's friend!

I will be curious to hear what you and your class find beneficial about this lesson, can't wait to hear from you!

The Classroom Flow: Introduction

10 minutes

1.  To introduce our work together, ask students to discuss in their lab groups the following prompt which is on the board:

Do you think climate change has happened in the past?

How do scientists study ancient climate change?

2.  Each group chooses a spokesperson to share their ideas in a quick whip around.  After this brief share out, tell students that they might surprised to know that climate change has been happening for a very long time and that scientists study ancient climate change in the following ways:

ice cores

dendrochronology (tree rings)



sun spots

3.  After taking additional comments or questions based upon your list of ways to study climate change, tell students that today they will be using photos of leaf fossils to track climate change connections between carbon emissions and global temperatures over time.

  • Note:  if it hasn't come up already through the readings or discussion, you may want to ask a follow up prompt concerning natural causes of shifts in global temperature such as volcanic eruptions and major weather patterns such as El Nino and La Nina. 

The Classroom Flow: Time to Read and Annotate

25 minutes

Pass out and ask each student to read and annotate the climate change article entitled, "A Basin Filled with Time."   

  • Note:  For support, students have the option of reading on their own or with a partner.  For specific groups, we may read out loud together or the group may choose to lead that activity on their own without my facilitation.  Our classroom is large and has two side office spaces and an outdoor space with multiple benches to allow for this additional support.  
  • To assist students with their annotations, I always have post it notes, highlighters, and other classroom supplies available for students to use.  I often put on classical music while they are reading and annotating and I allow pairs of students to work together in various areas of the classroom as needed.  

The Classroom Flow: Small Group Discussions

20 minutes

1.  Once students have completed their individual annotation work, direct students to get together in their lab groups to compare their understanding and ask/answer clarifying questions while you circulate and assist as needed.  

2.  Pass out the Ancient Climate Change reading discussion questions to help support this work and to ensure that the group gets at heart of the major concepts and vocabulary they need to be familiar with before moving on to the leaf activity.   See student work samples to see the types of answers students typically gave to these questions.  Students reported and demonstrated feeling very comfortable with the background knowledge they needed going into the next phase of this activity.

3.  As a large group take 5 minutes to check in for any additional, global clarifying questions or comments using the spokesperson protocol.

  • Note:  This protocol is something I piloted last year.  I found it to be effective and the students preferred it over many other methods they have experienced in their years in the classroom. I'd love to hear about your experiences using it and how it can be improved! 


And now…on to Day 2.  Time to work with our leaf data and connect it to ancient climate change!