EarthLabs for Educators > Climate and the Biosphere > Lab 1: Climate, Weather, and Trees

Lab 1: Climate, Weather, and Trees

The lab activities in this module were developed by Betsy Youngman of TERC for the EarthLabs project.

Open the Student Activity in a New Window Use the button at the right to navigate to the student activity pages for this lab. To open the student pages in a new tab or window, right-click (control-click on a Mac) the "Open the Student Activity" button and choose "Open Link in New Window" or "Open Link in New Tab."

Investigation Summary and Learning Objectives

Maple sap collection bucket and tap. Photo Source: Wikipedia

Students are introduced to the maple syrup industry in the United States. They consider the habitat and living conditions of a typical maple tree, and the ideal weather conditions for maple syrup production. Students download, graph, and analyze long-term weather and climate data and hypothesize about the factors that contribute to the annual variations in maple syrup production. This lab introduces an essential theme that recurs throughout the module: the relationship between climate and the biosphere.

After completing this investigation, students will be able to:

For more information about the topic, check the section titled Background Information under Additional Resources below

Activity Overview and Teaching Materials

In Part A: Engage students in the relationship between weather, climate, and trees in your own region by taking them on a mini-field trip to a tree in a local park or in your own schoolyard. Students observe a tree or other long-lived plants, local weather and cloud patterns. This lab is best if it can be completed offline.
Time required: 50 minutes

In Part B: Students are introduced to the case study for this module: the sugar maple (Acer Sacchrum) tree, the most common maple tree in the eastern United States. The sap from the sugar maple is used to produce maple syrup. The flow of the sap, both in timing and duration, is closely tied to weather and climate patterns. Trees, and other long-lived plants, are sensitive to changes in the weather and climate of a region. This lab can be adapted to work offline. To do this teachers will need to print out the reading material, and show the video to the whole class.
Time required: 30 minutes

In Part C: Students get a sense of typical Vermont climate by building a climatograph. Then they look at one-years worth of data to get a sense of variability within normal ranges, and lastly, students view data from one single day in February over a 30-year time period. This lab can be adapted to work offline. To do this teachers will need to print out the reading material, and show the slide show and interactive to the whole class.
Time required: 50 minutes

In Part D: Students learn more about the relationship between air temperature and the movement of sap in Vermont's sugar maple trees. The question arises: If current trends in Vermont air temperatures continue, what effect will that have on the flow of sugar maple sap and ultimately on the production of maple syrup? This lab is best with a live Internet connection.
Time required: 50 minutes

Tools needed: Colored pencils, Cloud Charts, Thermometer, Internet browser, Adobe Reader, Flash player, Microsoft Excel (optional), digital camera (optional)

Time required: 180 minutes, or 2-4 class periods are needed to complete these labs. (Parts A and B can be done as homework.)

Printable Materials

To download one of the PDF or Word files below, right-click (control-click on a Mac) the link and choose "Save File As" or "Save Link As."

Teaching Notes and Tips

In Part A: Engage student interest by having students supply a leaf from a local tree for the class (or the teacher can provide the leaves). Take students on a small field trip to observe trees, clouds, and weather in a local park or on the school campus. As this lab is intended to pique student interest in weather and climate, rather than teach them everything about maple syrup, discuss trees and climate to get students thinking about the relationships between plants, weather, and climate in their own local region. Ideas for local agricultural issues to discuss can be found in the Additional Resources section below.

In Part B: Why focus on a sugar maple tree? Stepping back for a moment, the overriding idea is that any tree is vitally connected to climate and weather; change the climate enough, and the tree may not survive. In the case of the sugar maple tree, long before the trees are completely lost, small changes in the climate can significantly reduce the late winter sap flow, which reduces the capacity for maple syrup production (and is an indication of tree health). In fact, the data shows that these changes have already started; maple syrup production in the Northeast United States is on the decline. If you like topping your waffles or pancakes with maple syrup, this particular change may catch your attention. Be sure to emphasize that short-term, unusual weather patterns, as well as long-term changes in climate, can affect important agricultural commodities, including peanuts, soy, rice, and corn. Therefore, climate change's impact on agriculture is an issue that is vital to the entire world's population. Note: If your students have never experienced maple syrup, consider purchasing some for them to sample as a way to "spice up" the first day of this lab.

In Parts B, C, and D: Be sure to check the various websites that students will visit; they should be reliably available, but it's always good to check. Being familiar with the navigation and functionality of the websites will allow you to anticipate potential areas of difficulty for your students and be prepared to help them, and if you are projecting the websites on a classroom screen, you'll be prepared to move through them efficiently. As a time saving option, teachers may choose to download the screen shots included in these sections and prepare a PowerPoint presentation. Depending on student ability, teachers may need to help students construct and interpret the graphs in these sections.

In Part C: Students are asked to analyze the mean temperature for one day in February over a 32-year time period (1980-2011). Give each student a print out of the PDF file (linked above) and have them circle all the days that are above average in red, below average in blue, and exactly average in green. Then count the days above, below, and average. In order to save time, the data has been downloaded for you and linked here. It is also linked in the student lab. This part of the activity can be done as homework.

Alternatively, the exercise can be converted into a group activity. Here is one method to try: Give each student one (or more if needed) year's worth of mean temperature / precipitation data to represent (by handing out index cards with one year's worth of data to each student). After drawing a line on the classroom floor, chalkboard, or whiteboard representing the long-term average (mean) temperature for that one day (21 degrees F), ask students to place their card, or another item, such as a colored poker chip, above or below the line to show if the data they had was above or below the long-term average. Then discuss variability and the concept of averages and anomalies (difference from average). This activity can also be done in small groups.

In Part D: Students return to the central question: How does weather affect the production of maple syrup? Students view various graphs and maps and begin to look at the effect of a changing climate on plants. Finish the lesson with a discussion of seasonal events in your own region. Details described below.

Purpose of the discussion: In this lab students were introduced to the relationship between weather, climate and the biosphere. A discussion will help to expand upon this understanding, and to make the issue more relevant to students.

Facilitation Tips: Write the primary discussion question on the board and give the students time, in small groups of 3-5 students, to brainstorm and recall events they may have heard about in their own area. If you suspect that they may have difficulty identifying local events, either discuss the examples here, or ask students to research events with their families or other resources as homework and then continue the discussion a second day.

Primary discussion question: In this lab, you were introduced to a seasonal event, maple sugaring, which is linked to climate. Are there similar events in your own region? For example, in some climates there is an "ice-out" date when the lakes and rivers thaw in the spring. Other seasonal events of note are the start of the "monsoon season" in the Southwest and autumn leaves changing color in New England.

Research and discuss local seasonal events with your classmates. When do they begin and end? Are they connected to agricultural practices or celebrations? Have their average dates of occurrence changed over the past 50 years?

Wrap Up: After the discussion, ask students to place their event on a class calendar. When the date arrives have the students make observations of weather. Some students may decide to become local weather observers, or be interested in other seasonal events around the world. This is a good chance to capture their interest in nature; use the content extensions, below, as way to go further.

Student Notebooks

The following items are suggestions for inclusion in optional printed student notebooks. The materials are linked in the Printable Materials section, above.


There are several options for assessment of student understanding of material introduced in this lab. Teachers can choose from the following list, or create their own assessments.
Assessment Options:
  1. Assess student understanding of topics addressed in this investigation by grading their responses to the Stop and Think questions.
  2. Teachers may want to collect and grade the graphing activities or weather observation forms.
  3. Written Test for Lab 1 (Microsoft Word 185kB Dec13 12) (Answer Key (Microsoft Word 220kB Jan25 13))

National Science Teaching Standards

The following Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) are supported by this lab:
Science and Engineering Practices:
#1 Asking and Defining Problems
#4 Analyzing and Interpreting data
#5 Using Mathematics and Computational Thinking

Cross Cutting Concepts:
#1 Patterns
#7 Stability and Change

Additional Resources

Background Information

Content Extensions

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