Lab 3: Normal Climate Patterns

The lab activity described here was created by Betsy Youngman of Phoenix Country Day School and LuAnn Dahlman of TERC for the EarthLabs project.

Summary and Learning Objectives

Students generate and explore a variety of graphs, charts and map images in order to better understand the concept of normal climate. Ideally, students should work in pairs on this lab. Consider assigning each student team to investigate the climate of a single region or state and then having all the teams share their results with the entire class.

After completing this investigation, students will be able to:

  • Access and interpret online climatographs of temperature and precipitation.
  • Use data and map images to describe the climate patterns of a given region.

Open the Student Lab »

Context for Use

This lesson is a fundamental piece in the overall drought unit. It can also serve as a stand-alone lesson on climate patterns. Rather than presenting a general definition of climate, it develops student's understanding by having them make in-depth examinations of historical climate patterns using both graphical and map image formats.

Estimated Time Required

  • Part A: 20 minutes
  • Part B: 30 minutes
  • Part C: 20 minutes to explore, 30 minutes to prepare a product or presentation plus additional time for sharing results.

Activity Overview and Teaching Materials

Part A begins with the question, "What's it like at your location during May?" Students access online graphs from NCDC's Divisional Data Selection interface to generate and view temperature and precipitation measurements for single years, multiple years, and for a single month across a decade or more.

In Part B, students investigate classic climograms, charts that show long-term averages of temperature and precipitation for cities across the U.S. They also explore daily mean maximum and minimum temperatures (daily highs and lows) by interpreting climotology graphs for several locations.

In Part C, students use an online map generator, the Climate Atlas of the United States, to explore temperature and precipitation patterns across the continental United States. The lesson concludes by assigning students to prepare a presentation, poster, or paper, illustrated with annotated graphs and/or maps, that describes the climate of one area of the United States.

Printable Materials

You may want to provide a hard copy of the Activity Sheet on which students can record their answers: (

, ) Suggested answers: , . Educators are encouraged to customize the questions and add new ones to meet specific learning goals in your location.

Teaching Notes and Tips

Engage student interest in the lab by discussing pen pals or other visitors (relatives, for instance) from distant places. If students have traveled, especially internationally, you may ask them to describe how they knew what to take along for clothing for their trip. In this age of instant information, it might be interesting to challenge students to brainstorm how they might find out about historical climate patterns without using the Internet.

This lab involves the use of several dynamic data portals. Though the sites are relatively stable government-sponsored projects, it is imperative to check that the sites are functioning properly on student computers before you commit a class period to using them! Depending on your students, you may want to practice the step-by-step instructions as a whole class before assigning students to work on their own computers. Be aware that Part C uses PDF files; if student computers can not accommodate PDF, you can prepare the maps ahead of time and project or print them for the teams.

Decide ahead of time about the resources that students will have for producing their climate descriptions. You might choose a prescriptive approach, for instance asking each student to submit the one or two maps or graphs (with descriptions) that they feel best describes the climate of their assigned location, or you can leave the assignment open-ended, providing a rubric to students to guide their work.

One way that you might display students' climate descriptions is by posting a map of the United States and using string or yarn and push pins to connect climate descriptions to the region of the country that they represent. This product can provide points of discussion and evidence for how weather patterns vary across the country. You can use the map to explore the effects of latitude and proximity to mountain ranges and large bodies of water on a region's climate.


Options for assessment include comparing student answers to the Stop and Think questions with the answers provided, collecting student's presentations of climate patterns for a region, and reviewing their return letters to their pen pal.

State and National Science Teaching Standards

Additional Resources

Background Information

Climate and Weather Basics

Content Extension

Satellites collect a broad range of climate and weather data. Students may wish to explore temperature and precipitation data generated from satellite-based instruments. These data are available through the NASA Earth Observations (NEO), along with an analysis tool called ICE. Download a word document (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 363kB Apr13 22) of instructions for exploring temperature and precipitation using NEO.

Additional Links

Climate maps of the United States provides PDF files of prepared climate maps.

PRISM data Climate mapping data from Oregon State University

NWS Advanced Hydrologic Prediction Service Precipitation data Excellent source for archived precipitation data.