Quantitative Skills > Teaching Resources > Activities > The Changing Geographic Distribution of Malaria with Global Climate Warming

The Changing Geographic Distribution of Malaria with Global Climate Warming

Mary Savina and Kendra Murray, Carleton College

This activity has benefited from input from a review and suggestion process as a part of an activity development workshop.

This activity has benefited from input from faculty educators beyond the author through a review and suggestion process as a part of an activity development workshop. Workshop participants were provided with a set of criteria against which they evaluated each others' activities. To learn more about this review process, see http://serc.carleton.edu/quantskills/review_processes.html#2005.

This page first made public: Oct 23, 2009

This material was originally developed as part of the Carleton College Teaching Activity Collection
through its collaboration with the SERC Pedagogic Service.


In this exercise, students analyze climate data to find areas in the southern United States that are now close to having conditions in which the malaria parasite and its mosquito hosts thrive and then attempt to forecast when areas might become climatically suitable.

Learning Goals

General questions:

Geoscience Goals:

Quantitative Skills emphasized:

Context for Use

This activity was designed for an introductory level environmental science class, Geology and Human Health. It can be adapted for use in other introductory environmental science, environmental studies, geology and geography classes.

Description and Teaching Materials

The activity sheet includes these sections, most done by a pair of students:
Depending on the nature of the class and assignment, these can be combined in various ways.

Teaching Notes and Tips

Time needed for activity:

Short answer: About two weeks.
Long answer: We start this activity by assigning reading for the students (see references below). In a follow-up lecture period we raise the larger issues of climate change and human health, examine maps of malaria occurrence in the U.S. and elsewhere, discuss the climate controls on the malaria parasite and brainstorm with students about what indications in the climate records might be best suited to answer the questions. During the lab period, we demonstrate the use of EXCEL and start students working on the individual data sets they analyze in pairs. Student pairs need three to six hours to analyze their data and prepare their powerpoint presentations. A peer review step (two pairs examining two data sets) and revision will take approximately another two hours. Finally, depending on the class size, two hours or more will be needed for students to make their powerpoint presentations to the whole class.

Accessing climate data:

For the sample files included on the web site, we used two data sources, both from the US Historical Climatology Network. For minimum temperatures, we used sites that had been corrected for changes in location, for time of day of readings and for the "urban heat island" effect. These are available on the USHCN fps server in a file called urban_min_fahr. Precipitation data come from FILENET at the USHCN site. These data have several rows for each year; use the data with the "A" flags which have been corrected for location and time of day.

Preparing climate data for student use:

Depending on the level of the course and how much experience students have had with EXCEL, you may want to ask them to find and download their own data files or (in advance) prepare the data in EXCEL workbooks and as templates. In an introductory level course, students may become stymied even before analysis starts by the process of finding files on the web, opening large files (try Wordpad or another simple text editor), choosing the data, copying datainto EXCEL and using a "text-to-columns" command to parse data, checking for missing data, converting from English to metric units, etc. Students experienced in EXCEL and working with large data sets probably will have fewer problems.

EXCEL quirks:

In addition to EXCEL help, one source of information on basics of EXCEL is described in the activity sheet; as an instructor, you probably have your own list of EXCEL tips that deal with common student frustration. These might include: manually setting the scale and the major units on graphs, entering text for the "series," adding additional data to a graph, changing the background, adding a line to a scatter plot, choosing the set of cells to copy, etc. Some of these are described in the activity sheet, generally in the text blocks with blue background; you may want to add your own. Feel free to expand, change or contract these instructions as you work with students whose spreadsheet experience varies.

Samples for students:

I generally do a sample analysis and powerpoint presentation for a station the students haven't chosen, to give them an example of the kind of analysis I'm looking for.

More stations:

With more time for this exercise, it would probably be advantageous for each pair of students to analyze a second station's data once they have finished a first set.


As described for students in the activity sheet, analysis of the climate data provided in this exercise will not answer the question of whether malaria will return to the southern U.S. This is partly because of the difficulty establishing an algorithm to connect the average values of temperature with the viability constraints of the mosquitoes and parasites. Partly, too, it is because malaria (and other diseases) are highly dependent on socio-economic factors not explicitly considered in the exercise.


Students work in groups through a number of steps, culminating in a PowerPoint presentation, oral report and individual paper on the results of their research. Each of these steps can be independently assessed. In particular, student presentations in all these media should show that they have good understanding of the meaning of the statistics and graphs they generate and the limitations of these statistics.

References and Resources

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