Lenore Teevan, Springfield City School District
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Initial Publication Date: March 10, 2021 | Reviewed: August 4, 2022


This is a unit plan for project-based learning. Students will learn about paleoclimate proxies and their importance in understanding past climates. Students will focus on one region-specific aspect of paleoclimate and research it. The final outcome will be a public product of relevance to the student, school and community.

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I use this unit in my Environmental Science class, grades 11-12, at the School of Innovation, a small Project-Based Learning public high school, in Springfield, Ohio.

The intended audience is 11-12 grade high school students in environmental science classes. These students already have taken biology, and physical geology. Although they learned about Sun-Earth-Moon relationships in middle school Earth and Space Science, we may have to review Earth's orbit, Earth's energy budget and Milankovitch Cycles. They should have an understanding of how humans are changing the global climate. They should have an understanding of supporting their claims with scientific evidence.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

I introduced students to the concepts of feedback loops and climate before teaching this unit.

How the activity is situated in the course

This unit will lead students to creating their culminating project during Quarter 3 Climate Focus in Environmental Science.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

The purpose of this unit is to have the students investigate evidence of past climate change and compare past climate change to the current climate change. Using paleoclimate proxies, they be able to illustrate and explain feedback loops for past climates. Building on their investigations of paleoclimates, they will examine feedback loops for current climate change and make predictions based on current climate evidence.

Students will be able to:

  • Support claims about Earth's climate with evidence 
  • Explain feedback loops responsible for paleoclimates and current climate change 
  • Research a project pertaining to paleoclimates or current climate change.
  • Analyze data types such as paleoclimate indicators and current climate data and explain their reasoning that this data supports their claims about climate.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Students will engage higher order thinking skills as they create a paleoclimate project. They will also interact with community experts as they delve into into their research.

Other skills goals for this activity

Students will use skills of collaboration as they work to identify experts whom they can interview. For this project, several students conducted interviews and others are in the process of writing articles about their findings in hopes that our local newspaper will publish them.

Description and Teaching Materials

This unit plan follows the 5E learning cycle and is intended to take two weeks of daily 50-minute class periods.


  1. The students will view and comment on photos in a PowerPoint presentation.  They will view several regional features: glacial erratics, the Hartman Rock garden (a local man collected glacial till and rocks and made a small city in his backyard—open to the public), the reservoir (the Great Miami Buried Valley Aquifer is under our feet here—full of past glacial waters!) and the gorges at John Bryan State Park.  They will discuss with each other what could have caused these features. 
  2. Teachers can administer the Paleoclimate Pre/Post assessment (see file under "Materials")
  3. Students will watch Ohio Rocks: The Ice Age in Ohio  and write down the evidence that the area in which we live was at one time was glaciated:
  4. Students will examine paleoclimate proxies and choose 5 of the 18 to discuss the information about paleoclimates they provide. See Paleoclimate Proxies file under "Materials."


  1.  Students will use data from one paleoclimate proxy to graph and analyze:
  2. Students will complete the HHMI Click and Learn worksheet:
  3. As a class, we will watch and discuss Feedback loops: How nature gets its rhythms - Anje-Margriet Neutel:
  4. GoogleForm


  1.  How do feedback loops relate to paleoclimate conditions?
  2. Explain how the area where we live was once covered by a glacier.  How can you use paleoclimate proxies to support your claims?
  3. How can we explain climate conditions through feedback loops of different Earth systems?
  4. How can you illustrate and provide evidence for past climate conditions?


Students will decide on a PBL project to research and create artifacts for it.  They will seek additional knowledge and insight from geology professors at a local university and present their project to the public.  Some possible topics might be:

  1. What factors are responsible for the Great Miami Buried Valley Aquifer? How can this important geological feature be explained by using paleoclimate data?  What were some of the feedback loops/Earth systems interactions at play to form this feature?
  2. We have a rich history of fossils here.  What can they tell us about paleoclimate? How can fossil evidence be correlated with other paleoclimate evidence?
  3. What is the purpose of paleoclimatology? Why is ocean drilling important to paleoclimatologists?  
  4. What can the feedback loops for the paleoclimate we studied in class tell us about feedback loops concerning the current climate?  How can you compare these climates and what evidence would you use and why?


Students will take formative assessments each day. The major assessment will be their PBL project, which is graded using the rubric below.


Teaching Notes and Tips

Teachers need to be involved in any contact students may request from experts. School administration may require that all correspondence go through the teacher. Students should not make arrangements to interview experts off school grounds after school hours.

Students may choose to work with students for this project. Teachers will need to approve group projects and groupings.

To adapt this unit plan to a different location, teachers will need to investigate the geologic history of their region and create the context for students to understand the paleoclimate of that region.  For example, when teaching paleoclimate in the coal-producing regions of West Virginia, teachers may have students investigate the climatic conditions and surrounding environment required for coal formation. There is a wealth of resources available at the websites of state departments of natural resources as well as by contacting informal educators at regional museums and state parks.


I have included a pre/post multiple choice assessment as well as a PBL rubric for the final project.

References and Resources

Teachers can use the2050 Science Framework: Exploring Earth by Scientific Ocean Drilling to learn more about Earth's climate system (pp.30-39) and Feedbacks in the Earth System (pp. 40-47).

Learn more about the International Ocean Drilling Program (IODP) or the JOIDES Resolution

See more resources for educators from IODP

More information about Feedback Loops:

Slides from HHMI Biointeractive on Paleoclimate: A History of Change:

Paleoclimate data sets from NOAA: