Glacier (?) National Park

Module by: Judy McIlrath, University of South Florida

Cover Page by: Len Vacher and Denise Davis, University of South Florida

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This material is replicated on a number of sites as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service Project


In this Spreadsheets Across the Curriculum activity, students examine data pertaining to the disappearing glaciers in Glacier National Park. After calculating percentage change of the number of glaciers from 1850 (150) to 1968 (50) and 2009 (26), they move on to the main glacier-monitoring content of the module--area vs. time data for the Grinnell Glacier, one of 26 glaciers that remain in the park. Using a second-order polynomial (quadratic function) fitted to the data, they extrapolate to estimate when there will be no Grinnell Glacier remaining (illustrating the relevance of the question mark in the title of the module). Introductory material includes expository slides on the geology of the park (the Lewis Thrust, the Precambrian rocks, glacial features), a time series of photographs for Grinnell Glacier, and a USGS animation of the changing environments and disappearing glacial cover since 1850. The main QL content is interpolation and extrapolation.

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Number NSF DUE-0836566. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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Learning Goals


Students will:

  • Complete a spreadsheet to calculate percentage of glaciers remaining and the percent decrease in the number of glaciers in Glacier National Park since 1850.
  • Observe changes in Grinnell Glacier from 1938 to 2006 through repeat photography.
  • Do an interpolation problem (simple nonlinear) to find the area of Grinnell Glacier in 1900 given the data from 15 other years from 1850 to 2000.
  • Extrapolate the data to estimate when Grinnell Glacier will be gone.
  • Apply the quadratic formula as an option to solve a problem.
  • Read Mark Twain's well-known take on extrapolation that "scientists" do.
  • See numerous photographs of the iconic geologic setting of this consequential environmental-geological data set.

In the process the students will:

  • Learn what glaciers are and that they are being monitored.
  • See from the data that the glaciers are shrinking and get a feel for how fast.
  • Get a little insight as to why the National Park Service considers climate change to be the biggest threat to our national parks.
  • Get practice with percentages and percent change.
  • Use extrapolation to calculate a result that might trouble them.
  • See a use for the quadratic formula.

Context for Use

This module is designed for potential use in the Geology of National Parks service course at USF. The course is offered as an online course every semester. It includes readings from Parks and Plates, weekly quizzes based on that textbook, and weekly student activities designed to align the course with the University's general education requirements. This module is intended to be one of those activities, with the specific goal of meeting the gen-ed quantitative literacy dimension.

Description and Teaching Materials


The module is a PowerPoint presentation with embedded spreadsheets. Click on the link below to download a copy of the module.

Optimal results are achieved with Microsoft Office 2007 or later; the module will function in earlier versions with slight cosmetic compromises. If the embedded spreadsheets are not visible, save the PowerPoint file to disk and open it from there.

The above PowerPoint presentation file is the student version of the module. It includes a template for students to use to complete the spreadsheet(s) and answer the end-of-module questions, and then turn in for grading.

An instructor version is available by request. The instructor version includes the completed spreadsheet. Send your request to Len Vacher ( by filling out and submitting the Instructor Module Request Form.

Teaching Notes and Tips


The module is constructed to be a stand-alone resource. It can be used as a homework assignment, lab activity, or as the basis of an interactive classroom activity. It was used as an out-of-class activity in a senior-elective course, Environmental Geology of the National Parks (for geology majors and nonmajors), during development of the module in Spring 2010, and as an out-of-class activity in Computational Geology (a QL course for geology majors) in Fall 2010 and Fall 2011. In general, the students considered this module to be one of the more elementary modules in the collection. It is now one of the modules that is rotated into the online introductory-level Geology of National Parks course.


There is a slide at the end of the presentation that contains end-of-module questions. The end-of-module questions can be used to examine student understanding and learning gains from the module. Pre/post test, pre/post test answer key, and answer key for end-of-module questions are at the end of the instructor version of the module.

References and Resources

Glacier - climate change handout 0507HO21, National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior

Glacier Geology

Glacier Monitoring Studies

US National Park Service (NPS)

Glacier National Park

More information about the Geologic Time Scale. USGS

Modeled Climate-Induced Glacier Change in Glacier National Park, 1850-2100

The quadratic formula expanded

North Cascades National Park

Retreat of Glaciers in Glacier National Park (USGS 2010)