Cemetery secrets (1 of 2)

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Students will be able to 1) define demography and 2) collect lifespan data from an internet database.

Big Idea

Cemeteries are rich sources of human population data? How might we analyze cemetery data to better understand trends in human survivorship and mortality over time?

FRAME: Cemetery as data archive

What data can we use to study human populations of the past? "Cemetery Secrets" is a variation of a popular demography lab in Advanced Placement Environmental Science courses. Students have just learned about how the human population has grown over time. Now they will investigate this population growth using data from the Brooklyn Greenwood Cemetery.

Specifically, students will develop survivorship curves for the human population data they gather and learn to apply the survivorship framework to different populations. For background, there are three types of survivorship curves. Here is a diagram that captures all three:

There are three types of survivorship curves. The type I curve shows species where most of the young survive until old age. The type II curve is for species that have relatively constant mortality at every age. (There is no dramatic increase in the number of deaths in advanced age as with Type I). Finally, the type III curve is a model for species that have high mortality in the youngest age groups and low mortality after that. Humans are generally type 1, but the survivorship curves for humans will vary among different groups.

During the first lesson of "Cemetery Secrets" students will consider the local Greenwood Cemetery as a rich data archive, define demography through a short text reading, and begin to collect virtual data from Greenwood cemetery.

During the second lesson, students will learn about the survivorship curve model, graph collected data from Greenwood as a survivorship curve, and apply the survivorship concept to analysis of various human population.

By the end of this lesson sequence, successful students will have met the following objectives: 

  1. define demography
  2. collect lifespan data from an internet database
  3. produce and analyze graphs using survivorship and mortality data
  4. make inferences about past and present human populations based on survivorship curves
  5. describe the impact of advances in medicine and technology on human demography.

STUDENT SAMPLE WORK NOTE: Unfortunately, student work for this lesson sequence was inadvertently discarded from the classroom during a school break. Because many of these activities were required visual representations of data, these assignments were distributed and collected as paper and electronically. Nearly all students opted for paper version; as such, there are few to no work samples for these lesson. However, analyses of trends in student work and associated adjustments to practice are included where relevant.

HUMAN DEMOGRAPHY SEQUENCING NOTE: For an overview of what students will learn about human demography and how this learning builds towards the CAPSTONE for this unit, see the outline below:

7 Billion : Students learn about factors that have influenced the growth of the human population over time.

Focus question: How has the human population grown so large so quickly?

Cemetery secrets: Students learn that modeling the survivorship of different human societies reveals that human demography data is heterogeneous. The "human population" is actually many human populations, separated by geography and time.

Focus questions:

    1. What data can we use to study populations of the past?
    2. How can we model the death rate of a population?

Human Population Pyramids: Students learn how to develop the population pyramid data visualization tool to formally represent an analyze the various human populations throughout the world. In this process, students develop an evidence-based understanding of how different population structures uniquely impact the Earth and how these unique impacts will become more or less intense over time.

Focus questions:

    1. How can we represent the essential demographic data of a human population using an elegant data visualization tool?
    2. What demographic information does the shape of a population pyramid reveal and how does this shape predict future a population' future growth?
    3. How might the population pyramids of countries be used to develop public policy?

Demographic Transition: Students learn about a model of how population change over time and use this model to describe how human populations will impact the Earth in the future.

Focus question: How do different rates of development within a country influence how specific human populations will impact the environment?

RESOURCE NOTE: The attached PROTOTYPE ACTIVITY GUIDE might be modified for classroom use.  

ATTRIBUTION NOTE: Some activities were modified from materials found on The Biology Corner.

PRIOR KNOWLEDGE NOTE: Students will be most successful in this lesson if they have had experience constructing survivorship curves.  See the REFLECTION to this FRAME for a lesson idea for building students' ability to construct these curves. 

FLIPPED: What can we learn from the dead?

What will students do?

For this FLIPPED assignment to be completed BEFORE class, students read the article and watch the short video about Mount Auburn Cemetery in Topeka, Kansas. Then students respond to the following questions:

  1. What types of data does a cemetery contain?
  2. What does this data tells us about the past?
  3. How do you think we might use this data to study human population growth?

By the end of this activity, students should have identified a few types of data and explained how we could use this data to study human population growth. For example, a student might explain that cemeteries contain information about human lifespan, and we can use this information to figure out how long people live in a specific population of humans.

ENGAGE: Stories of the dead

10 minutes

What is the purpose of this section?

Students consider Greenwood Cemetery as a data source and make connections to the FLIPPED assignment. By the end of this sections students should be able to describe data available from a cemetery.

What will students do?

Students watch a brief presentation about Greenwood Cemetery, the famous Brooklyn cemetery directly across the street from the high school.  What data can you observe?  How might we use this data to visually represent the population of Brooklyn? Please describe your ideas using both words and diagrams.  Students record responses in a paragraph and discuss responses.

What will the teacher do?

I facilitate whole class discussion to elicit ideas and clarify misunderstandings. Some key questions include:

  • What is the information on a tombstone?
  • Does data have to be numbers?
  • What kinds of stories can you create from the information here?


EXPLORE: Shallow dive

15 minutes

What is the purpose of this section?

Students develop an initial understanding of human demography, survivorship curves, and how the characteristics of human demography have changed over time. By the end of this section students should be able to define demography, describe a survivorship curve, and explain how human demography has changed over time because of advances in technology and geopolitics.

What will students do?

Students read the informational text below and paraphrase understanding of THREE MAIN IDEAS in a graphic organizer. (See the PROTOTYPE ACTIVITY GUIDE for a student version of this activity.)

ATTRIBUTION NOTE: Text adapted from The Biology Corner.

A cemetery is an excellent place to study human demography. Demography is defined as "the study of the characteristics of human populations, such as size, growth, density, distribution and vital statistics". Gravestones record the dates of birth and death, which can be used to calculate death rates and draw survivorship curves. A survivorship curve is simply a graphical representation of the chance that an individual will survive from birth to a particular age. By comparing survivorship curves for different periods of time, we may look for historical trends in demography over the decades.

Over the last few centuries, advances in health care and large-scale global political conflict have left opposing marks on the demographics of our population. Two major time intervals stand out: before 1950 and after 1950. People who died before 1950 witnessed the industrial revolution, the ravaging effects of polio, as well as World Wars I and II. Following 1950, numerous vaccines and antibiotics were widely used, and with the exception of a few non-global scale wars, this has been an era of relative peace in North America. What do you predict about how the demographics of the human population have changed during these two time periods?

What will teachers do?

Teachers may want to develop differentiated readings for this section prior to the lesson. This will be especially important for students wanting enrichment. Advances in health care related to polio and the impact of both World Wars are of particular interest to students; short readings about both topics will support students' development of main idea summaries.

DATA LAB 1: Cemetery secrets

25 minutes

What is the purpose of this section?

Students will categorize data found in Greenwood Cemetery. By the end of this section, students will have collected data for a specific subgroup and will have begun to identify the probability that an individual within that group survives to a given age.

What will students do?

Students will follow a "data digging" protocol to extract human demography information through a Greenwood Cemetery virtual visit. This protocol will be done in teams so that students have the opportunity to collaborate with other students and troubleshoot problems together. Here are the steps:

  1. develop hypotheses
  2. visit Greenwood Cemetery or an online database to record dates of births and deaths etched on the headstones
  3. examine demographic parameters such as survivorship and mortality of males and females during two time intervals: deaths pre-1950 or post-1950
  4. create graphs of the data
  5. compare the data and suggest some causes for the results

TIMING NOTE: Students will work on this lab until the end of the period; most will begin but not finish step 3. The next lesson will support students' visual representation of demography data as survivorship curves as well as the analysis of these curves.

BLENDED LEARNING NOTE: Greenwood Cemetery is easily accessible, but this lesson was taught during winter in New York City. It was far too cold for students to comfortably collect data. If weather is not a barrier, the data collection of this lesson should be done in an the actual cemetery.

Step 1-Hypotheses

Students develop hypotheses for the following set of questions based on ideas developed during the EXPLORE section:

  • In general, what are your predictions about death rates of people before or after 1950?
  • For infants of both sexes, would you expect infant mortality to be higher or lower before or after 1950? Why?
  • How might the survivorship of females differ from that of males in the 20-30 age group? (Why?)

Step 2-Data Collection

Students collect data from virtual headstones in Greenwood Cemetery (or another cemetery in Kings County if additional data points are needed. Students collect data in the following categories:

  • Time Period 1: FEMALES WHO DIED BEFORE 1950 – 20 headstones
  • Time Period 1: MALES WHO DIED BEFORE 1950 – 20 headstones
  • Time Period 2: FEMALES WHO DIED AFTER Jan. 1, 1950 – 20 headstones
  • Time Period 2: MALES WHO DIED AFTER Jan 1, 1950 – 20 headstones

Step 3-Examine demographic parameters

Students categorize data and conduct preliminary analysis for the chosen group; this information will become the survivorship curve developed for step 4. Basically, students will determine the chance of survival of individuals in the chosen category (FEMALES WHO DIED BEFORE 1950 is one such category). To do this students use a data table. One example that could be used with modification is in this REFLECTION.

Steps 4 + 5-Next lesson

What will teachers do?

Teachers will want to model how to gather data from the virtual headstones. The most important skill here is for students to be able to figure out lifespan/age of death. Additionally, students will need support with the data table as described in the REFLECTION.


EXIT: Do we see trends?

5 minutes

As an EXIT, students teams will share out the group that they investigated and the age at which most people in that group start to die. For this activity, "most" means more than half. Once all teams have shared, the whole class briefly discusses any trends that seem to have emerged. Does group X live longer? Why does group Y die so young? This group share allows students to synthesize meaning from the learning activities of this lesson. It also provides the teacher with formative assessment data. Are students able to identify differences in the survivorship rates of different groups? Are students ready to apply the survivorship framework to other examples in the next lesson?