Human Population Pyramids (1 of 3)

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Students will be able to 1) calculate percentages using raw numbers for each age/gender group in a given population and 2) construct human population pyramid from raw data collected in class.

Big Idea

Human population growth statistics can describe the past and predict the future. How might we use visualized data tools called population pyramids to understand the implications of differing rates of human population growth in countries around the world?

FRAME: A robust tool for visualizing populations data

How do we represent the characteristics of diverse human populations? The "Human Population Pyramids" has become a staple of the AP Environmental Science curriculum. How do we represent important information about human population through an impactful visual? How do we make quick inferences about populations from visualized data? In learning about population pyramids, students will have to engage with data visualization, drawing evidence from non-text sources, statistical analysis, modeling, computational thinking, and social and political factors that influence populations. As with "Cemetery Secrets", "Human Population Pyramids" pushes students to represent demographic data of multiple human populations and then apply this data to real-world problem solving.  

First lesson: Students explore a gapminder presentation of human population growth over the last 200 years to develop ideas about factors that influence different rates of growth. Then students build on this initial exploration by learning about how scientists use population pyramids to describe the attributes of a human populations. Next, students collect personal data and develop the skills of constructing a population pyramid. Finally, students discuss the process of creating population pyramids and share understanding of the importance of population pyramids as data visualization tools.

Second lesson: Building on the creation of population pyramids from the prior lesson, students formally define population pyramids and describe their applications. Students then work in groups to construct population pyramids for a range of countries. Once students have constructed these pyramids, they peer review work from other groups and describe how populations pyramids describe the unique social forces at work within a given country. Finally, students choose a country to explore in greater depth during the third lesson.

Third lesson: Students begin by practicing their ability to analyze population pyramids through a online tutorial. Students then use a population pyramid database to construct a profile of the county selected at the end of the previous lesson; this activity is essentially practice for the unit CAPSTONE.  Finally, students check their proficiency with human population pyramids by working through a series of questions from recent Advanced Placement examinations in Environmental Science.

By the end of the "Human Populations Pyramid" sequence successful students will have met the following objectives:

  1. calculate percentages using raw numbers for each age/gender group in a given population
  2. construct a population age/gender distribution graph for one of six different countries
  3. make correlations between the shapes of the graphs and the growth patterns of different countries
  4. apply understanding of population problems to solve questions from the Environmental Science AP exam.

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?
    4. How do different rates of development within a country influence how specific human populations will impact the environments?

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?

PRIOR KNOWLEDGE NOTE: Students should have demonstrated proficiency with survivorship curves prior to this lesson. Population pyramids are another data visualization tool that will require many of the same skills that students needed for survivorship curves, such as collecting data, processing data for use in a graph, plotting data, drawing conclusions from data, comparing the meaning of different graphs, and using data visualizations to make predictions about future population growth. 

RESOURCE NOTE: The attached PROTOTYPE ACTIVITY GUIDE contains a series of learning activities that might be modified by educators for classroom use.

FLIPPED: Developed versus developing

What is the purpose of this section?

Students develop an understanding of the historical causes of developed and developing countries as an introduction to the idea that different human populations have unique characteristics. Students will complete this activity BEFORE class. By the end of this section students should be able to describe the how the human population has changed over time, the role of health and wealth in this change, and cite evidence of variation among human populations. Students should also be able to describe a key idea from a presentation about human population.

What will students do?

Students will engage with this presentation from gapminder, take notes, and develop a summary of content.


  1. What is the x axis of the data presented?  What is the y axis of the data presented?
  2. How would you describe the health and wealth of the world in 1810?
  3. In 1810 which region of the world had the most people?
  4. What was the average life expectancy in 1810?
  5. What causes mostly European countries (“The West”) to begin to move towards greater wealth and health after 1810?
  6. Which countries were still poor and sick in 1948?
  7. What was the world like in 2009?
  8. What does the “splitting” of China show about the differences that exist within countries?

Making meaning:

What is the most important idea from this presentation? In a short paragraph describe this idea and explain why you think this idea matters.

ENGAGE: What I think

15 minutes

What is the purpose of this section?

Students build on ideas from the FLIPPED assignment to preview the skills and concepts to be developed during this lesson.  The teacher checks for initial understanding and surfaces "pain points" that are likely to require greater scaffolding. By the end of this activity students should be able to describe the features of a population pyramid and how populations pyramids can be used to compare human populations.

What will students do?

Students will engage with this population pyramid TED Talk and use the framework as the FLIPPED assigment.

Notes Choose five of the following questions to answer:

  1. How do the populations of Russia and Nigeria compare?  
  2. Will these populations continue to grow at the same rate?  Why or why not?
  3. What do we have to know about populations in order to make informed predictions about future growth?
  4. Why do demographers use the population pyramid instead of a complicated spreadsheet?
  5. How does a population pyramid represent data?
  6. How are ages grouped in this diagram?
    • Pre-reproductive=
    • Reproductive=
    • Post-reproductive=
  7. What does Rwanda’s population pyramid show?
  8. What does Canada’s population pyramid show?
  9. What does Japan’s population pyramid show?

Making meaning Chose two of the following questions to answer:

  1. What happens to countries at an advanced stage of industrialization?
  2. What can a population pyramid tell us?  Choose one of the examples provided and explain.
  3. Why do you think it is important to understand populations and the factors that affect them? 
  4. What is the relationship between population pyramids and the human population change described in the FLIPPED assignment?

Students will discuss responses to the "making meaning" questions in small groups; students should add information from the "notes" questions to support ideas. Then each group shares out a response to a "making meaning" questions that includes evidence from the "notes" section in a "What I think a population pyramid is..." format.

What will teachers do?

The teacher will surface initial understanding and confusions through whole group discussion.  If the class is ready, the teacher may also present a sample population pyramid and pepper the class with specific questions to gauge abilities to conduct visual data analysis. Are most people old or young? Are there more men or more women? Do we think this country is wealth or poor? What evidence do you have for your ideas?

EXPLORE: We are family

25 minutes

What is the purpose of this section?

Students make a population pyramid from aggregated classroom data; each group will imagine that all members are a single country.  The teacher assess students ability to construct a pyramid as well as students understanding of the meaning of the pyramid. By the end of this section students should be able to sort raw human population data into sex and age categories and create a human population pyramid from raw data. 

What will students do?

Students will build a human population pyramid using data from students in class. This process is meant to mirror a census data collection process that results in a population pyramid.

For this activity, students will first collaboratively build a partial human population pyramid with the teacher. The teacher will ask for family data from students (age and sex), enter this data into the provided data table, and then model the process of plotting this data on the human population pyramid template.

Then, students will pretend that the class is a single country and attempt to create a human population pyramid for this hypothetical country. Groups follow these steps:

  1. Each student captures individual family data. How many family members live with the student? How many men? How many women? How old is each person?
  2. One member from each group tallies the whole group. Students compile all data in a single table.
  3. Same member transfers information to the board. One student adds information to whole "country" data table projected for all students
  4. Each group member develops a pyramid from data on the board. Students must be very careful to only plot percentages of the total population. This means that students will have to divide the number of individual with each gender and age category. The most common mistake students make at this stage is to simply plot a tallied value of the number of individuals in a specific age and gender category.

GRAPHICE ORGANIZER NOTE: One flaw with this pyramid template is that the percentages may not cover all the data in the class. Because many students will come from younger families, the data will be skewed towards young age groups. The percentage value should be changed to a 40 at minimum.

What will the teacher do?

I will model this process for students. This will include gathering all data, determining percentages and charting results in the provided graph.  I will also circulate to individual groups to provide modeling and scaffolding when necessary. This goal of this section is for students to learn the skills of creating a human population pyramid. This is generally not the time to ask students to interpret the meaning of these pyramids. Focus on the skill first.

DEBRIEF: Triangle Talk

12 minutes

What is the purpose of this section?

Students use a discussion protocol to exchange ideas related to the construction of a population pyramid.  By the end of this section students should be able to describe the essential skills of building a population pyramid, identify areas of confusion, and describe the types of information conveyed by the population pyramid.

What will students do?

Students will engage in a Triangle Talk protocol (also called "Think Talk Open Exchange") and discuss one or more of the following: 

  1. What is the most important skill needed to create a pyramid?
  2. What kind of information do these pyramids quickly show us?
  3. How do you think the pyramids we created would look in 50 years?  Support your answer with evidence.
  4. What is confusing to you about the population pyramid?

NAMING NOTE: The Triangle Talk protocol was renamed by students; they explained that the name helps them remember what to do. Elsewhere in this curriculum it is also called "Think Talk Open Exchange."

EXIT: Population paraphrase

3 minutes

As an EXIT student synthesize takeaways from the lesson and share with the class. Why do we build population pyramids? How might we use this tool to help us understand human populations? Students that have not yet added a "purpose paraphrase" to the public whiteboard are encouraged to do so. The teacher is able to check for understanding and give public recognition to emerging expertise.