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From Isotopes to Temperature: Working With A Temperature Equation

Dorien McGee, University of South Florida, Washington Center for Improving Undergraduate Education

In this activity, students will use oxygen isotope values of two species of modern coral to reconstruct ambient water temperature over a four-year period. They use Microsoft Excel, or similar application, to create a spreadsheet of temperature values calculated from the isotope values of the corals by means of an algebraic equation. Students then use correlation and regression techniques to determine whether isotope records can be considered to be good proxies for records of past temperatures.

Activity takes about two lab periods or can be done as a homework assignment. Computer with Excel software is required.

Learn more about Teaching Climate Literacy and Energy Awareness»

Climate Literacy

This Activity builds on the following concepts of Climate Literacy.

Click a topic below for supporting information, teaching ideas, and sample activities.

Excellence in Environmental Education Guidelines

1. Questioning, Analysis and Interpretation Skills:G) Drawing conclusions and developing explanations
Other materials addressing:
G) Drawing conclusions and developing explanations.
1. Questioning, Analysis and Interpretation Skills:B) Designing investigations
Other materials addressing:
B) Designing investigations.
1. Questioning, Analysis and Interpretation Skills:E) Organizing information
Other materials addressing:
E) Organizing information.
1. Questioning, Analysis and Interpretation Skills:F) Working with models and simulations
Other materials addressing:
F) Working with models and simulations.
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

  • Forming groups of students (especially pairing students of different level of experiences in Excel) will enhance the effectiveness of the activity.
  • Strong guidance of students is required in order to ensure they don't simply follow the instructions but understand the relevance in terms of paleoclimatology.
  • Include a final discussion on the relevance of what students learned on their understanding of global temperatures.

About the Content

  • The dataset and conversion equation used in this module were contrived though are based on actual datasets and conversion equations used for corals.
  • The spreadsheet is based on the PDB standard and the equation given in the presentation uses SMOW standard. Instructors need to clarify the difference between the standards.
  • Comments from expert scientist: The resource is very sound, and despite being fairly fundamental in paleoclimatology it often can confuse students. However, here it is clearly presented and explained, with relevant background and application information.

About the Pedagogy

  • This activity is designed to improve students' quantitative skills.
  • Activity relies heavily on Excel use, and students need to very comfortable with formulas in Excel to follow the activity.
  • Modeling aspect of this activity may be engaging for some students.

Technical Details/Ease of Use

  • Instructor version is available by request to the author (a link is provided).
  • PowerPoint and associated files are available for download from the activity sheet.
  • Even though these PowerPoint slides are very dense, they are given as a .ppt file and could be broken up and modified easily.
Entered the Collection: April 2013 Last Reviewed: October 2016

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