OGGM-Edu Glaciology Lab 1: What Makes a Glacier?

Lizz Ultee, Middlebury College
Fabien Maussion, University of Innsbruck
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Initial Publication Date: June 16, 2022 | Reviewed: August 4, 2022


This is a three-part class or lab activity that challenges students to define what a glacier is, how it differs from other parts of the cryosphere (such as sea ice), and what kinds of glaciers there are in the world. Part 1 (30-40 minutes) is a gallery walk activity for students to define a glacier and then test their definitions on example images. Part 2 (15-20 minutes) invites students to explore different types of glaciers found around the world through the OGGM-Edu Glacier Gallery app. Part 3 (15 minutes) is a debrief in the form of a mini-lecture, for which we provide all the slides.

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I use this activity in an undergraduate elective course on glaciology, similar to the mixed-level MSc/BSc glaciology courses taught at several universities. Students are mostly majors in geology, geography, Earth science, physics, or mathematics. A similar activity has also been used as an indoor preparation for field trip activities for high school students in Austria.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

No background knowledge is assumed.

How the activity is situated in the course

We use this activity as the first or second lab session of the semester, typically followed by "OGGM-Edu Glaciology Lab 2: Exploring glacier data". Historically this has been in the first week of the semester, so we assume minimal background knowledge.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

  • Definition of a glacier
  • Characteristics of different glacier types
  • The utility of glacier characteristics to inform numerical modelling

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Critical evaluation of definitions

Other skills goals for this activity

Web search for reliable information

Description and Teaching Materials

Part 1, Gallery Walk:
Before any discussion, ask students to think about and then write down their own definition of a "glacier". After a few minutes, ask students to form groups of 2-4, and to agree as a group on a set of criteria to identify glaciers. Meanwhile, you the instructor should go around the room to hang one image (printed from Glacier gallery walk images (Acrobat (PDF) 20.7MB Jun2 22)) at each of ~6 stations.
Describe the gallery walk methodology to the class: ~1 minute for each group at each station to decide whether the feature in the photo is a glacier, rotating through all stations in turn. Each group should write their reasoning on a post-it (or on a large paper) at each station.
Kick off the gallery walk by sending each group to a starting station. Rotate at regular intervals of 1-2 minutes.
When the groups have returned to the station where they started, give them a few minutes to summarize all the points listed there. Have each group report the findings for "their" image. You can check for correct identification and criteria using the instructor notes file (


Part 2, Glacier Gallery app:
Before opening the app, ask students to think about what characteristics might distinguish different glaciers from each other. If they are familiar with some example glaciers, you can also ask them to separate the various glaciers they know into categories, and think about why it might be useful to differentiate between different kinds of glaciers. After ~5 minutes of this preparatory discussion, distribute the Lab 1 guide sheet ("Lab 1 sheet - Glacier Gallery - Student version" - Lab 1 sheet - Glacier gallery - Student version.pdf (Acrobat (PDF) 50kB Jun2 22)).
The sheet will ask the students to answer one pre-lab question before they begin. Then, they should open the Glacier Gallery app and a search engine to read about the different glacier types and explore various examples (~ 10 minutes including independent web search).
To close the activity, explain why each of these glacier types will respond differently to climate change and what processes need to be accounted for in numerical models of glacier change.

Part 3, Debrief:
Step through the slides provided (

, instructors only) to show students the technical definition of a glacier (based on Hambrey & Alean, Color Atlas of Glacial Phenomena) as well as some criteria we use to categorize different types of glaciers. Explain why each of the images they considered in the gallery walk does/does not qualify as a glacier.

Glacier gallery walk images (Acrobat (PDF) 20.7MB Jun2 22)

Student handout for Glacier Gallery activity (Rich Text File 134kB Jun2 22) 
Lab 1 sheet - Glacier gallery - Student version.pdf (Acrobat (PDF) 50kB Jun2 22)

Teaching Notes and Tips

We suggest posting the photos around the room when the students are already in their groups discussing their criteria. That is, don't have them up on the walls already at the start of class, because that might influence the students' thinking too early.

The Gallery Walk activity suggests that students take 1 minute at each station, which is very fast. In practice they will take longer. Nevertheless, we suggest setting the expectation that the activity will proceed quickly in order to keep things moving.

The slides tell the students to split into 6 groups. You can vary this according to your class size. We have provided extra sheets so that you can adjust the number of stations or select the examples that best meet your needs.

Encourage the students to complete the Pre-lab Question *before* opening their web browser. Definitions of glacier types are readily available online, and if they land on one of those pages it will limit the effectiveness of the pre-lab reflection.


Students report out whether they think each image shows a glacier and indicate which criteria they used to determine that. We assess whether they have correctly identified glaciers and whether their criteria are more or less in line with the technical definition used in glaciology.

Students fill in a lab sheet and we discuss their answers. We assess whether they can correctly distinguish major types of glacier: ice caps, calving glaciers, and other pure ice glaciers.

References and Resources