Cruising the Climate with Spreadsheets: Making Worldwide Weather and Climate Comparisons Using Graphs and Spreadsheets

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Collecting and recording weather data is a wonderful activity for teaching elementary children about changes in weather patterns within their local area. Weather data collected over extended periods provides opportunities for students to identify patterns in their local weather, which can lead to discoveries about the local climate. In addition, they can learn to construct and interpret line graphs from data they collect. Making comparisons beyond the local area requires additional data sources--readily available on the internet. I have found electronic spreadsheets and online weather databases excellent tools for making real-world comparisons of local, national, and global climate trends.

I use the following activities with my elementary science methods students to bridge our study of weather and the seasons. Climatic patterns that emerge through these activities initiate aha moments for some students and elicit questions about what causes the seasons for others. The activities help familiarize students with electronic spreadsheets and how to use authentic data sets available from the internet to answer authentic scientific questions. These activities address important standards-based concepts in science, mathematics, and geography, and are appropriate for grades 4-6.

Spreadsheets: Scientific Tools

Scientists rely on analytic computer tools such as electronic spreadsheets and other data analysis software to organize, analyze, and share their findings with peers. These programs provide a way to easily transform large data sets into graphical representations, which scientists use to identify patterns in their data. Children also can use electronic spreadsheets for similar purposes, and should do so, according to the National Educational Technology Standards for Students (ISTE 2007).

Graphing is an important process skill that many elementary students often struggle to learn. Constructing a good graph and interpreting patterns identified in a graph require different skills. Many students become so focused on how to construct a good graph that they overlook the purposes for making it. Flick and Bell (2000) recommend using the unique features of educational technologies to make abstract concepts more apparent to students or to engage them in authentic scientific investigations. Electronic spreadsheets can do just that. These tools offer opportunities for students to organize and analyze data, identify patterns within their data, and develop professional-looking graphs. Thus, electronic spreadsheets can be used to focus students' attention on identifying patterns in their data rather than how to make a good graph.

Activity Preparation

Before beginning the activities, it is important that students have collected weather data, constructed paper-and-pencil graphs of their data, and interpreted their data using the graphs. Students should collect several months of weather data to identify changes in their local climate (e.g., collecting daily temperature).

Recording several weeks of weather data in an electronic data table is a great way to introduce students to electronic spreadsheets (e.g., Excel, Apple, Open Office, or similar program; see Figure 1 for a list of tutorials and some spreadsheet tips) and help them identify emerging patterns in their data. The activities in this article were conducted using Excel.

If your students (or you) are not familiar with electronic spreadsheets, the M&M activity developed at Oregon State University (see Internet Resources) is a great way to familiarize them with these tools. The M&M activity challenges students to determine the average number of each color of candies in a bag of M&Ms. In doing so, they construct a rough draft of a spreadsheet using note cards, and then transfer the data into an electronic spreadsheet.

Figure 1.
List of free online spreadsheet
tutorials and spreadsheet hints/tips. …