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Probabilities, Uncertainties and Units Used to Quantify Climate Change

Wendy Van Norden, University of Wisconsin - Global and Regional Climate Change

In this exercise learners use statistics (T-test using Excel) to analyze an authentic dataset from Lake Mendota in Madison, WI that spans the last 150 years to explore ice on/ice off dates. In addition, students are asked to investigate the IPCC Likelihoodscale and apply it to their statistical results.

Activity takes one to two 45-minute class periods.

Learn more about Teaching Climate Literacy and Energy Awareness»

ngssSee how this Activity supports the Next Generation Science Standards»
High School: 3 Disciplinary Core Ideas, 4 Cross Cutting Concepts, 7 Science and Engineering Practices

Climate Literacy
About Teaching Climate Literacy

Climate change vs. climate variability and patterns
About Teaching Principle 4
Other materials addressing 4c
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:D) Evaluating accuracy and reliability
Other materials addressing:
D) Evaluating accuracy and reliability.
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

  • Group students so that each group has one person with good Excel knowledge and one person with good math skills.
  • Recommend this activity for AP classes only or undergraduate level.
  • The lack of teaching guide should not be an issue for advanced high school or undergraduate instructors because the activity is well laid out.

About the Science

  • This activity explores the language used to quantify the uncertainty in the interpretation of data results provided within IPCC reports.
  • This resource is one of many within the CIMSS curricula from the University of Wisconsin where additional background resources are provided.
  • Solid dataset and good activity that will help students to understand statistics in an easy-to-grasp way.
  • Comment from expert scientist: Gets the student to think about quantitative and qualitative statements, and how they relate (and specifically, how the IPCC relate them). Explanation of t-test is good (not too complicated).

About the Pedagogy

  • This activity leads the students through a guided-inquiry process to an understanding of the use of a statistical tool (T-test) for comparing change in ice on/ice off data over time.
  • Introduction to statistical terms such as probability, variance, uncertainty, standard deviation, mean and especially the T-test would be valuable to include and review prior to initiating this activity.
  • Putting the T-test into a contextual framework for greater understanding of its use to determine probability of a significant change over discreet time periods would greatly benefit the student.
  • Providing a website overview of Excel to be included as a reference can be found at: http://www.shodor.org/scsi/handouts/excel.html
  • Explicitly pointing out annual variability versus long-term trends is recommended to help students understand both.
  • Well-explained statistics and good step-by-step explanation for the Excel part of the activity.
  • The use of T-test statistics is beyond the ability of most high school students, but since the activity walks students through using the tool effectively, for the right group of learners, this activity could work well.

Technical Details/Ease of Use

  • No log-in is required– Skip login and sign in as guest.
  • Well-designed activity.
  • Students need a working knowledge of Excel spreadsheets and computer access to do the activity.
  • Some students might feel overwhelmed by the statistics, but the explanations are very well written so that they can follow the steps and fully understand the result they are getting.

Related URLs These related sites were noted by our reviewers but have not been reviewed by CLEAN


Next Generation Science Standards See how this Activity supports:

High School

Disciplinary Core Ideas: 3

HS-ESS2.D1:The foundation for Earth’s global climate systems is the electromagnetic radiation from the sun, as well as its reflection, absorption, storage, and redistribution among the atmosphere, ocean, and land systems, and this energy’s re-radiation into space.

HS-ESS2.D4:Current models predict that, although future regional climate changes will be complex and varied, average global temperatures will continue to rise. The outcomes predicted by global climate models strongly depend on the amounts of human-generated greenhouse gases added to the atmosphere each year and by the ways in which these gases are absorbed by the ocean and biosphere.

HS-ETS1.A1:Criteria and constraints also include satisfying any requirements set by society, such as taking issues of risk mitigation into account, and they should be quantified to the extent possible and stated in such a way that one can tell if a given design meets them.

Cross Cutting Concepts: 4

Patterns, Scale, Proportion and Quantity, Stability and Change

HS-C1.2:Classifications or explanations used at one scale may fail or need revision when information from smaller or larger scales is introduced; thus requiring improved investigations and experiments.

HS-C1.4: Mathematical representations are needed to identify some patterns.

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.

Science and Engineering Practices: 7

Asking Questions and Defining Problems, Developing and Using Models, Analyzing and Interpreting Data, Using Mathematics and Computational Thinking, Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions, Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information

HS-P1.3:ask questions to determine relationships, including quantitative relationships, between independent and dependent variables

HS-P2.6:Develop and/or use a model (including mathematical and computational) to generate data to support explanations, predict phenomena, analyze systems, and/or solve problems.

HS-P4.2:Apply concepts of statistics and probability (including determining function fits to data, slope, intercept, and correlation coefficient for linear fits) to scientific and engineering questions and problems, using digital tools when feasible.

HS-P4.3:Consider limitations of data analysis (e.g., measurement error, sample selection) when analyzing and interpreting data

HS-P5.4:Use simple limit cases to test mathematical expressions, computer programs, algorithms, or simulations of a process or system to see if a model “makes sense” by comparing the outcomes with what is known about the real world.

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

HS-P8.2:Compare, integrate and evaluate sources of information presented in different media or formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively) as well as in words in order to address a scientific question or solve a problem.

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