Graphing Global Temperatures

Mathematical computational thinking is an essential part of science education that is often ignored. In this activity, students will use graphs to make inferences about changing global temperatures over the last 150 years.

This activity comes from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and they made a great guide you can check out.

Grade(s): 5-7, 8-12


Many misconceptions are held about the phenomena of climate change. Despite evidence presented from several reputable scientific institutions, many people assert that climate change is a hoax. In my own personal opinion, I think some of these misconceptions come from a misunderstanding of the difference between weather and climate. To put it simply, weather is the short term atmospheric conditions in a particular area. Climate refers the long term patterns of weather conditions within a region. Many people are confused when they are told that global temperatures are rising when they see heavy snowfall in the winter. In order to clear up these misconceptions, it is important to engage students in the process of data collection and analysis that scientists use to make these inferences.

How do scientists know that global temperatures are rising? If you’d like the full explanation, check out NOAA’s page for all the details. If you just want a quick explanation, then read on.

Image result for climate scientist collecting data

Monitoring climate begins with monitoring weather. The United States has thousands of officially recognized weather stations that collect weather data. These stations continually collect data to create a timespan of weather data that can be analyzed. Weather is monitored from the ground at these weather stations and from satellites orbiting the globe.

Weather and climate scientists have a list of essential climate variables that are monitored in order to monitor changing climate conditions. These conditions are grouped into three main categories: air, land, and water. Changes in these variables are tracked and monitored over the span of decades. In order to observe any trends in weather and climate, scientists needs decades of data in order to make viable inferences.

What You’ll Need

This activity has slight differences depending on the grade level taught. They provide recommendations and options for each grade group.

Grade 5

  • tape
  • scissors
  • Quadrille- ruled graphing paper (four squares per inch), or graphing worksheet (PDF file)

Grade 8-12

  • spreadsheet software (Microsoft excel, google sheets, etc.)

What to Do

The procedures for this lab are quite extensive, so I am going to refer you to NASA’s page for further instructions. I’ll provide some notes about the procedures here.

This activity is designed for both middle and high school, so the procedures for each grade bracket has some differences that I will describe.

The big procedural difference between the two grade brackets is the way that the data is graphed. For fifth grade, students will use pencils and paper to graph the data manually. The activity suggests that the data be divided among groups to streamline the process. The high school bracket uses excel to graph the data, so the focus is less on the process of graphing and more on the analysis of data. High school students will need to be familiar with how to use the basics of excel, so if they are not familiar with it, they will need a short introductory lesson. The activity describes step by step how to use excel to make the graph.

The middle school version focuses on the bigger overall trend of the data. Students are expected to come to the conclusion that average global temperatures have increased over time. The high school version asks students to go deeper and analyze the smaller trends that are seen. This version also introduces the differences between actual temperature and anomaly temperature. It requires more inductive reasoning and analysis than the middle school version.

Both versions of this activity engage students in computational thinking and connect mathematical reasoning to the concept of global climate change. It not only engages them in the process of analyzing data, but it reinforces the scientific practice of using evidence and reasoning to make a claim.

Connecting Concepts (NGSS)

Ask questions to clarify evidence of the factors that have caused the rise in global temperatures over the past century.

ESS3.D: Global Climate Change

  • Human activities, such as the release of greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels, are major factors in the current rise in Earth’s mean surface temperature (global warming). Reducing the level of climate change and reducing human vulnerability to whatever climate changes do occur depend on the understanding of climate science, engineering capabilities, and other kinds of knowledge, such as understanding of human behavior and on applying that knowledge wisely in decisions and activities.
Analyze geoscience data and the results from global climate models to make an evidence-based forecast of the current rate of global or regional climate change and associated future impacts to Earth systems.

ESS3.D: Global Climate Change

  • Though the magnitudes of human impacts are greater than they have ever been, so too are human abilities to model, predict, and manage current and future impacts.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s