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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
Other materials addressing:
A) Processes that shape the Earth.

Benchmarks for Science Literacy
Learn more about the Benchmarks

The earth's climates have changed in the past, are currently changing, and are expected to change in the future, primarily due to changes in the amount of light reaching places on the earth and the composition of the atmosphere. The burning of fossil fuels in the last century has increased the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which has contributed to Earth's warming.
Explore the map of concepts related to this benchmark

Notes From Our Reviewers The CLEAN collection is hand-picked and rigorously reviewed for scientific accuracy and classroom effectiveness. Read what our review team had to say about this resource below or learn more about how CLEAN reviews teaching materials
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).

Disciplinary Core Ideas

MS-LS4.A1: The collection of fossils and their placement in chronological order (e.g., through the location of the sedimentary layers in which they are found or through radioactive dating) is known as the fossil record. It documents the existence, diversity, extinction, and change of many life forms throughout the history of life on Earth.

HS-LS4.C4: Changes in the physical environment, whether naturally occurring or human induced, have thus contributed to the expansion of some species, the emergence of new distinct species as populations diverge under different conditions, and the decline–and sometimes the extinction–of some species.

Science and Engineering Practices

MS-P2.5: Develop and/or use a model to predict and/or describe phenomena.

MS-P3.4: Collect data to produce data to serve as the basis for evidence to answer scientific questions or test design solutions under a range of conditions

MS-P4.4: Analyze and interpret data to provide evidence for phenomena.

MS-P6.1: Construct an explanation that includes qualitative or quantitative relationships between variables that predict(s) and/or describe(s) phenomena.

MS-P8.5: Communicate scientific and/or technical information (e.g. about a proposed object, tool, process, system) in writing and/or through oral presentations.

MS-P1.6: Ask questions that can be investigated within the scope of the classroom, outdoor environment, and museums and other public facilities with available resources and, when appropriate, frame a hypothesis based on observations and scientific principles.

HS-P1.6: Ask questions that can be investigated within the scope of the school laboratory, research facilities, or field (e.g., outdoor environment) with available resources and, when appropriate, frame a hypothesis based on a model or theory.

HS-P2.3: Develop, revise, and/or use a model based on evidence to illustrate and/or predict the relationships between systems or between components of a system

HS-P3.5: Make directional hypotheses that specify what happens to a dependent variable when an independent variable is manipulated.

HS-P6.2: Construct and revise an explanation based on valid and reliable evidence obtained from a variety of sources (including students’ own investigations, models, theories, simulations, peer review) and the assumption that theories and laws that describe the natural world operate today as they did in the past and will continue to do so in the future.

HS-P8.5: Communicate scientific and/or technical information or ideas (e.g. about phenomena and/or the process of development and the design and performance of a proposed process or system) in multiple formats (i.e., orally, graphically, textually, mathematically).

Cross-Cutting Concepts

MS-C7.1: Explanations of stability and change in natural or designed systems can be constructed by examining the changes over time and forces at different scales, including the atomic scale.

MS-C1.2: Patterns in rates of change and other numerical relationships can provide information about natural and human designed systems

MS-C3.3: Proportional relationships (e.g., speed as the ratio of distance traveled to time taken) among different types of quantities provide information about the magnitude of properties and processes.

HS-C1.5: Empirical evidence is needed to identify patterns.

HS-C2.2: Cause and effect relationships can be suggested and predicted for complex natural and human designed systems by examining what is known about smaller scale mechanisms within the system.

HS-C3.1: The significance of a phenomenon is dependent on the scale, proportion, and quantity at which it occurs.

HS-C7.2: Change and rates of change can be quantified and modeled over very short or very long periods of time. Some system changes are irreversible.

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