Earth Observations: Pattern Recognition of the Earth System

Created by Matt Nyman, University of New Mexico
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Initial Publication Date: May 2, 2007 | Reviewed: December 10, 2020


In this activity students examine various data sets displayed on world maps related to different spheres of the earth system. On each map students are asked to recognize and describe the patterns displayed by the data. Students choose three maps and examine possible correlations and propose hypotheses to example the observed similarities.

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Learning Goals

The general goal of this project is to have students recognize patterns in different data sets related to the Earth system. Students do not have to understand all of the data sets but should be encouraged to focus on pattern recognition. During this activity students should gain confidence in data analysis (especially visual data) and synthesis of different data sets to evaluate hypotheses. Assessment of their development is primarily through a written assignment; therefore development of clear and concise writing is another skill that is part of this curriculum. The datasets used in this project are seen throughout the year and provide an excellent avenue to link different concepts and science disciplines.

Context for Use

This activity is used in a small class size lab/lecture setting. I have used this curriculum with K-8 pre-service teachers, some of which have very low confidence and ability in science and math. With practice and guidance all students are able to master the tasks associated with this activity. I typically have used two 2.5 hour class periods to complete this activity including time for the students to write their papers in class. There is no special equipment for this effort - just the visualizations although I would prefer them to be on the same scale (which they are not, perhaps a future project). The activity is done on the 2nd or 3rd class period.

Description and Teaching Materials

Teaching Notes and Tips

  1. Do at least one example prior to having the students begin the process.
  2. Some students express frustration with not knowing the details for all the visualizations. IN some cases I give the students more details about the datasets but I always stress that these datasets will reappear later in the semester and perhaps then will make more sense.
  3. Require students to be thorough! They should examine the entire map or graph. They should look for changes in patterns, shapes of patterns, gradients in patterns and the number of different types of patterns.
  4. This activity requires a lot of instructor participation. If you let the students fly on their own, it is likely they will not do a thorough job.


I collect all the observations and make sure they are detailed and reflect a concerted and focused effort. I grade the observations for each visualization on a 1-3 scale: 3- Meets or exceeds expectations; 2- below expectations; 1- not acceptable. I also grade the short paper that is required where students discuss correlation between at least three visualizations and present hypothesis to support their observations.

References and Resources

Harwood, W.S. (2004). A New Model for Inquiry: Is the Scientific Method Dead? Journal of College Science Teaching, 33(7).