Lab 1: Climate, Weather, and Trees

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

Summary and Learning Objectives

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:

  • define weather and climate, and describe how they can be determined at various spatial scales (micro-climate, city-level, state, regional) and for various time periods (hour, day, month, year, decade, etc.);
  • distinguish between weather and climate; and
  • explain the relationship between climate and the biosphere.
Open the Student Lab »

Overview and Teaching Materials

Detailed overview of what students will do in each lab activity, how long it will take, and what materials are required to complete the lab.
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

Download and print files needed for each lab activity, including images, data tables, and Stop and Think questions.
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

General recommendations for classroom implementation as well as guidelines and facilitation tips for leading class discussions.
General Recommendations:

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. After taking students outside to observe their local collection of trees and shrubs, bring them back to the relationship between climate and plants by asking, "what types of plants were not present in our area?" 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

Suggestions for how to use Student Notebooks for Lab 1.
The following items are suggestions for inclusion in optional printed student notebooks. The materials are linked in the Printable Materials section, above.
  • Key Questions listed in introduction to lab
  • Stop and Think questions
  • Discussion Starters and a place to write notes
  • Relevant vocabulary and a place to write definitions
  • Extra blank sheets for sketches or notes
  • Recording sheet for outdoor activity
  • Images of tree in four seasons – ask students it put it in annual sequence
  • Template for Climatograph activity
  • 30-year temperature data for Burlington VT


There are several options for assessment of student understanding of material introduced in this lab. Choose from the following list, or create your 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

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    This file is only accessible to verified educators. If you would like access to this file, please enter your email address below. If you are new to the site, you will be asked to complete a short request form. If you have already been verified by the EarthLabs project, you will be taken directly to the file download page.


Science Standards

Lab 1 supports following Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).
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

Examples of how students engage with the standards:

Go to Next Generation Science Standards.

Additional Resources

Explore background information and content extensions related to Lab 1.

Background Information

Content Extensions

  • Teachers may choose to have students research their own local weather and climate patterns using the skills and websites demonstrated in this section.
  • Students may be interested in collecting local weather data for a period of time. Students can use simple weather instruments, such as thermometers and rain gauges to get a feel for local variability. Example of protocols for investigating local climate are provided by the GLOBE program and CoCoRaHS projects.
  • Alternately, the class may want to investigate the concept of micro-climates around the school campus. An example of this type of activity is described in this Earth Exploration Toolbook chapter: Mapping Local Data in a GIS. Note: this concepts described in this chapter would also work with Google Earth, or a simple paper map.
  • For instructions on how to graph two sets of data on one graph in Excel, visit this EET chapter. Streamflow Precipitation Relationship.
  • Students and teachers may want to look into other impacts of climate change on the United States. There are many citizen science opportunities available for students to become involved in monitoring how the climate is changing life in their own backyard. Several examples are listed below.
    • Project Budburstincludes materials for teachers and students, additional resources, and even a mobile phone application.
    • Journey Northis a citizen science project that students of any age can become involved in. Students use this website to record their observations of seasonal changes including: butterfly and animal migration, spring leaf-out, maple sap flow, and other phenological (seasonal) events. Maps of phenological patterns are generated and shared online.
    • Picture Postshows you how you can get started recording change in your own backyard ecosystem.