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Sun Spot Analysis

Activity and Starting Point page by R.M. MacKay. Clark College, Physics and Meteorology.

This page first made public: May 11, 2005

This material is replicated on a number of sites as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service Project


Introductory students use Excel to graph monthly mean Greenwich sunspot numbers from 1749 to 2004 and perform a spectral analysis of the data using the free software program "Spectra". Short answer and thought questions related to the graphical data are asked throughout the assignment.

Learning Goals

Context for Use

This activity is useful in any introductory geoscience course in which a discussion of the solar cycle is appropriate or in which an introductory exposure to Fourier spectral analysis is desired.

Teaching Materials

The assignment in a form that can be printed and handed out to students is:

Teaching Notes and Tips

The two graphs above show essentially the same thing. The graph on the right was made with Excel by importing the Text frequency data from the Text output Window of Spectra. The Spectra program does not allow you to alter the horizontal axis. We did not ask students to do this step in the assignment since they can read the numerical values from the graph or from the table, but you may want to use these two figures in a follow-up discussion.


The successful completion of this activity and evaluation of their results are good measures of student comprehension. Follow-up discussions in class, essay questions on exams, and the future success of students on other related activities are also useful measures of student understanding.

References and Resources


Geoscience:Atmospheric Science:Meteorology:Solar and terrestrial radiation, Physics:Astronomy

Resource Type

Activities:Lab Activity, Datasets and Tools:Datasets with Teaching Activities, Activities

Special Interest


Grade Level

College Lower (13-14):Introductory Level

Quantitative Skills

Graphs, Differential Equations and Integrals, Fourier Series, Spectral Analysis, Probability and Statistics:Describing Data Distribution

Ready for Use

Ready to Use:Meets Peer Review Standard:Anonymous Peer Review, Ready to Use

Earth System Topics

Climate, Atmosphere, Solar System and Astronomy

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