From Isotopes to Temperature: Working With A Temperature Equation

This page authored by Dorien McGee, 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 PowerPoint module, students will use oxygen isotope values of two species of modern coral to reconstruct ambient water temperature over a four-year period. Students are provided a dataset including the oxygen isotope values of the two coral species, as well as temperature and oxygen isotope values of the surrounding water. Students use Microsoft Excel to create a spreadsheet of temperature values calculated from the isotope values of the corals by means of an algebraic equation. Students then use correlation and regression techniques to determine which coral's isotopes serve as a better proxy for water temperature. A post-assessment of module skills, concepts, and applications, is included at the end of the presentation conclusion of the module.

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Learning Goals

The goal of this exercise is to show students several analytical techniques for comparing values in a dataset. While building the spreadsheet, students will further develop their graphing skills in Excel while bettering their understanding of the relationship between oxygen isotopes and temperature.

Context for Use

This module can be used as an exercise accompanying a lecture for introductory chemistry and geology. It can also be used to kick off deeper discussion in paleontology, marine geology, and Quaternary geology courses. The module may be used as a stand-alone exercise for students with an active understanding of isotope geochemistry.

Description and Teaching Materials

SSAC2006.QE445.DKM1.1 - Student Version (PowerPoint 1.2MB Jul16 07)
SSAC2006.QE445.DKM1.1 - Dataset (Excel 25kB Dec8 06)

This module is a downloadable PowerPoint file with an embedded Excel spreadsheet dataset that students will use to start their calculations. If used with lecture, classroom computer access will be required. Computers must be loaded with both MS PowerPoint and Excel. Laboratory materials and external materials are not required. If used outside lecture, students will need access to the module file as well as a computer loaded with PowerPoint and Excel.

End of module assignments may be printed and submitted to the instructor for assessment. Alternatively, and depending on logistics and available resources, it may be more appropriate for the students to submit the assessment materials electronically. Internet access is required only in the downloading of the module and electronic submission of the assessment.

This PowerPoint file is the student version of the module. 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 dataset and conversion equation used in this module were contrived, though are based on actual datasets and conversion equations used for corals.


An End of Module Assignment is included at the end of the module, which can be used during class or completed as homework. A pre-post assessment is included in the instructor version. Instructors can use the pre-test to ascertain the skill level of students prior to working through the module and, with the end-of-module assessment materials, to examine student learning during the activity.

References and Resources

Schmidt, G.A., G. R. Bigg and E. J. Rohling. 1999. "Global Seawater Oxygen-18 Database".