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Signs of Change: Studying Tree Rings

Nancy Colberg, Northern Climate Change

In this hands-on activity, students will learn about dendrochronology (the study of tree rings to understand ecological conditions in the recent past) and come up with conclusions as to what possible climatic conditions might affect tree growth in their region. Students determine the average age of the trees in their schoolyard, investigate any years of poor growth, and draw conclusions about the reasons for those years.

Activity takes about 2-3 hours. Tree disks or cores are needed and ideally one microscope.

Learn more about Teaching Climate Literacy and Energy Awareness»

ngssSee how this Activity supports the Next Generation Science Standards»
Middle School: 2 Disciplinary Core Ideas, 4 Cross Cutting Concepts, 5 Science and Engineering Practices
High School: 1 Disciplinary Core Idea, 2 Cross Cutting Concepts, 5 Science and Engineering Practices

Climate Literacy
About Teaching Climate Literacy

Observations are the foundation for understanding the climate system
About Teaching Principle 5
Other materials addressing 5b

Excellence in Environmental Education Guidelines

1. Questioning, Analysis and Interpretation Skills:C) Collecting information
Other materials addressing:
C) Collecting information.
1. Questioning, Analysis and Interpretation Skills:E) Organizing information
Other materials addressing:
E) Organizing information.
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.

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

  • If the suggested path of obtaining the tree samples is too complicated – go to a saw mill and ask them to cut tree disks or cut some of your own from a tree trunk.
  • Educators should assign the extension on solutions to the students at the end of the lesson.
  • If a coring borer is used - measure the diameter of the tree to determine how deep to core the tree.
  • Obtaining local weather records for seasonal average rainfall and temperatures would provide a basis of comparing the influence of these factors on tree growth.
  • Additional resource to consult: Esper, J., E. R. Cook, and F. H. Schweingruber (2002) Low-frequency signals in long tree-ring chronologies for reconstructing past temperature variability. Science 295:2250-2253 and http://www.cru.uea.ac.uk/cru/people/briffa/yamal2009/.
  • There are also paper versions of tree-ring/dendrochronology activities that could be linked to this since, indeed, obtaining core or cross section may be hard for some.
  • Not all trees can necessarily be used for coring.

About the Science

  • Great hands-on activity that demonstrates the scientific processes of dendrochronology.
  • Carefully designed activity with a lot of background materials for educators and students (at different levels).
  • Strong connections to regional climate through local examples of trees will engage students and demonstrate the relevance of the method.
  • Ideally educator would also show what a published dendrochronology diagram looks like (easy to find through a literature search).

About the Pedagogy

  • Hands-on activity and interpretation of results will engage students of different learning styles.
  • Activity offers enrichment ideas that focus on the development of language arts and science process skills.
  • The extensions present solutions to climate change, a great way to empower students when teaching about climate change.
  • Effective strategies to assess student understanding are suggested.

Technical Details/Ease of Use

  • Very well designed and ready to use.
  • It would be ideal to have a least one microscope for the students to work with.

Next Generation Science Standards See how this Activity supports:

Middle School

Disciplinary Core Ideas: 2

MS-ESS3.D1: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.

MS-LS2.A2:In any ecosystem, organisms and populations with similar requirements for food, water, oxygen, or other resources may compete with each other for limited resources, access to which consequently constrains their growth and reproduction.

Cross Cutting Concepts: 4

Systems and System Models, Stability and Change, Patterns, Cause and effect

MS-C1.3: Patterns can be used to identify cause and effect relationships.

MS-C2.1:Relationships can be classified as causal or correlational, and correlation does not necessarily imply causation.

MS-C4.2: Models can be used to represent systems and their interactions—such as inputs, processes and outputs—and energy, matter, and information flows within systems.

MS-C7.3:Stability might be disturbed either by sudden events or gradual changes that accumulate over time.

Science and Engineering Practices: 5

Planning and Carrying Out Investigations, Analyzing and Interpreting Data, Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions, Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information, Asking Questions and Defining Problems

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.

MS-P3.2:Conduct an investigation and/or evaluate and/or revise the experimental design to produce data to serve as the basis for evidence that meet the goals of the investigation

MS-P4.3: Distinguish between causal and correlational relationships in data.

MS-P6.3:Construct a scientific explanation based on valid and reliable evidence obtained from sources (including the students’ own experiments) 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.

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.

High School

Disciplinary Core Ideas: 1

HS-ESS2.D3:Changes in the atmosphere due to human activity have increased carbon dioxide concentrations and thus affect climate.

Cross Cutting Concepts: 2

Cause and effect, Stability and Change

HS-C2.1:Empirical evidence is required to differentiate between cause and correlation and make claims about specific causes and effects.

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.

Science and Engineering Practices: 5

Asking Questions and Defining Problems, Planning and Carrying Out Investigations, Analyzing and Interpreting Data, Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions, Engaging in Argument from Evidence

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-P3.3:Plan and conduct an investigation or test a design solution in a safe and ethical manner including considerations of environmental, social, and personal impacts.

HS-P4.1:Analyze data using tools, technologies, and/or models (e.g., computational, mathematical) in order to make valid and reliable scientific claims or determine an optimal design solution.

HS-P6.1:Make a quantitative and/or qualitative claim regarding the relationship between dependent and independent variables.

HS-P7.5:Make and defend a claim based on evidence about the natural world or the effectiveness of a design solution that reflects scientific knowledge and student-generated evidence.

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