California Climate and Vegetation Change Classroom Task

Katherine Glover, UCLA
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Initial Publication Date: April 21, 2017


This NGSS-aligned classroom task focuses on California's Mediterranean climate, and shifts in its floral diversity during the Holocene that reflect past climate change. Students first examine modern climate data from four disparate areas in the state and create climatographs. Using the Neotoma Paleoecology Database, students then look at past records in each of these four regions to assess pollen data as a proxy for climate change over time, and completeness of the record. Plant taxa in the fossil record are compared to modern plant tolerances and distribution available at CalFlora, and students then determine which plants are most sensitive to change by region, and preserve well as fossil pollen.

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Learning Goals

This classroom task emphasizes the following skills: critical thinking, evaluation of real datasets, spatial thinking, use of technology (e.g. Neotoma Explorer and CalFlora), and effective communication of results in either writing or oral presentation. The content of the task spans climate, vegetation, range shifts, and the fossil pollen record of the U.S. West Coast. The content is appropriate for coursework in environmental science, earth science, climatology, geography, ecology, and paleobotany.

Context for Use

This classroom task can be adapted for 9-12th grade science, undergraduate-level general education and lower division courses, and upper-division undergraduate courses. New graduate students working on West Coast palynology may also find it useful to complete the task components independently. Completing the entire task spans 3-5 hours, though this depends on grade level, how the task is adapted for the course and student population, and how the instructor wants to parse the task components between in-class work and homework.

Description and Teaching Materials

In order to implement the activity, students will need computer (with internet) access, and a copy of the California Climate Plants Task handout (Acrobat (PDF) 1.2MB Apr21 17) that includes the Context, description of Task Components, Neotoma Explorer instructions, Table 2: Monthly Averages of 2010 climate data from select California Stations, and instructions for navigating CalFlora.

The description of the Classroom Task includes handouts and graphic organizers that can be provided to students, in order to adapt the activity. These include:
"California Climatographs Worksheet" - template for graphing Table 2 climate data by hand (an alternative to graphing software)
Graphic Organizer for Task Component C - worksheet where students keep track of their observations in Neotoma Explorer
Graphic Organizer for Task Component D - worksheet for noting observations and plant tolerances from CalFlora

Teaching Notes and Tips

Background necessary for this classroom task includes:
- students understand how to set up graph axes given data, the law of superposition (in lake deposits), and the basics of palynology (e.g. sampling, chemical processing, unique morphology of grains, slide counting, inherent bias in grain preservation and identification).

- students have a basic familiarity with the naming conventions of taxonomy. Familiarity with how organisms are identified using dichotomous keys is also helpful.

- instructor has worked through components of each task him/herself.

- instructor is comfortable guiding students as they 1) navigate online database platforms that may be new and unfamiliar, and 2) interpret graphs of multiple paleoecological variables through time

Differentiation and accommodations:

The components can be differentiated, or assigned to groups of 2-4 to be completed collaboratively, foster discussion, and reduce classroom time devoted to the exercise. The option of writing or orally presenting answers to components D – F is one option for differentiation.

References and Resources

"Next Generation Science Standards" (National Academies Press, Washington, D.C., 2014).