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Paleoclimates and Pollen

S. Henderson, S. Holman, L. Mortensen (eds. modified), UCAR

In this activity, students examine pictures of pollen grains representing several species that show the structural differences that scientists use for identification. Students analyze model soil samples with material mixed in to represent pollen grains. They then determine the type and amount of 'pollen' in the samples and, using information provided to them, determine the type of vegetation and age of their samples. Finally, they make some conclusions about the likely climate at the time the pollen was shed.

Activity takes one to two 45-minute class periods. Materials that are needed are tweezers, pie pans, confetti/paper dots and soil.

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Climate Literacy
About Teaching Climate Literacy

Changes in climate is normal but varies over times/ space
About Teaching Principle 4
Other materials addressing 4d

Excellence in Environmental Education Guidelines

2. Knowledge of Environmental Processes and Systems:2.1 The Earth as a Physical System:A) Processes that shape the Earth
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A) Processes that shape the Earth.

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Teaching Tips | Science | Pedagogy | Technical Details

Teaching Tips

  • Questions like "Why does climate change over time?" need to be addressed after stimulating the students with this activity.
  • Educators should show an image of a real soil core so students can differentiate between the model and reality.
  • Educators should note that all soil layers do not have unique pollen, and that pollen is not often well preserved in sediments.
  • Educators need to be explicit about what is modeled and what is real; e.g. potting soil is very different than a real soil sample from a lake from a certain time period.
  • Educators should include a discussion on the difficulty of deciding on boundaries between sedimentation layers and touch on dating techniques of these layers. In the activity, dates are given but no explanation is provided.
  • Keys to types of pollen and climate are found in tables and student answer sheets.

About the Science

  • Great and quick way of teaching students how scientists reconstruct past climates using a good model for the real data that was obtained at two research sites.
  • Activity does not offer enough background material or links to sources for more detailed information about palynology. Background readings that are suggested are grade-appropriate.
  • There is no reference to the scientific paper or, at least, the actual pollen diagram for the Colorado core site.
  • In order to teach students critical thinking skills, educators should be clear that some pollen might not be complete and only pieces can be found, which makes the recognition of a species difficult and might skew the distribution.

About the Pedagogy

  • An effective, hands-on, inquiry-type activity that demands student thinking and data analysis.
  • Well-designed activity requiring an adequate amount of time to teach the concept.

Technical Details/Ease of Use

  • Quite a bit of educator preparation required (several hours).

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