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World Population Activity I: Excel

Activity and Starting Point page by R.M. MacKay. Clark College, Physics and Meteorology.
This material is replicated on a number of sites as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service Project
Initial Publication Date: July 19, 2005


In this introductory activity students use Excel to explore population dynamics using the Logistic equation for (S-shaped) population growth. This activity is primarily intended as an introductory tutorial on using Excel. As a follow-up, Activity II continues this tutorial and compares populations predicted by the Logistic equations with those from UNEP.

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Learning Goals

In this first Activity students are carefully guided through using Excel to:
  • input numbers and labels
  • format fonts, numbers, alignment, and cell widths
  • use simple equations and how to copy these to other cells to generate a table from a mathematical formula (analytical model)
  • learn about fixed and variable cell references in Excel equations
  • make and format graphs with multiple curves
  • learn about population dynamics and the logistic growth equation.

Context for Use

This is a generic introductory tutorial on using Excel with a focus on world population. This topic was chosen as it is appropriate for many introductory geoscience courses. This is a good activity to start with if you intend to use Excel in your introductory course as either a lab tool or for modeling activities.

Teaching Materials

Here we give:
  • Activity Sheet (Excel 2003 version) (Acrobat (PDF) 1.2MB Aug10 03); Activity Sheet (Excel 2007 version) (Acrobat (PDF) 469kB Dec9 10)
  • Answers Document (Excel 90kB Apr3 04) with several sheets representing different levels of completion. These Excel documents can be used for either:
    • Introducing concepts and ideas in an interactive lecture
    • making transparencies or power point slides
    • checking student results
  • Sample images of what's in the Excel Answer Document and what students are expected to accomplish.

Figure 1. Predicted (modeled) populations for imaginary planet Xox for different initial growth rate values r.

Figure 2. Predicted (modeled) population growth for imaginary planet Xox for different initial growth rate values r.

Teaching Notes and Tips

This activity will take students about 2 hrs to complete. Students should be able to work through this activity at home or in a computer lab will no supervision. Students more familiar with Excel can work through this activity more quickly.


Grading the completed activity sheet provided can be used as an assessment of student understanding. The future success of students on other Excel related activities is also another useful assessment tool.

An Excel Answers Document is provided above with several sheets representing different levels of completion for this activity. This can help instructors:

  • assess student success for this activity;
  • answer student questions that come up;
  • quickly familiarize themselves with the activity.

References and Resources

In World Population Activity II, students compare actual data/projections of World Population from data files generated at UNEP.

The Resources for Earth Science and Geography Instruction site has several interesting links related to World population.

Resource for learning Excel

Other Background information The solution to the logistic differential equation




Not only is it of interest here but is very popular in beginning discussions related to Chaos theory. Measuring Chaos: a hypertextbook (more info)