How We Know What We Know about Our Changing Climate

What You Need


  • Classroom copies of the book, How We Know What We Know about Our Changing Climate: Scientists & Kids Explore Global Warming, in sufficient quantity that all students have access to reading it
  • Observation Form from Project BudBurst
  • Pencils for recording data
  • Large construction paper sheets on which students make a mural/montage
  • Old magazines
  • Glue sticks
  • Scissors
How We Know What We Know about Our Changing Climate


To help students understand the scientific research into climate change and the role of citizen scientists in helping professional scientists generate data to track the problem and devise solutions.


This lesson makes use of a book called How We Know What We Know about Our Changing Climate: Scientists & Kids Explore Global Warming by Lynne Cherry & Gary Braasch (Dawn, 2008). This book was one of the winners of the 2009 AAAS/Subaru SB&F Prize for Excellence in Science Books (you can read about this prize at: Book Award).

The lesson introduces students to the scientific basis of climate change. Using the award-winning book as a text, the lesson focuses on the collaboration between professional science and citizen science—kids especially—to generate data documenting environmental changes and identifying ways to slow the changes.

To master these concepts, students will investigate phenology. Phenology is the study of how plants and animal life cycles change in response to seasonal changes and conditions such as temperature, length of daylight, and available moisture. They will choose an online, citizen-science project to participate in by selecting and planning a phenology-based project appropriate to their locale, such as tracking one of 75 plants followed in Project BudBurst. Finally, as an extension, they will use these existing online projects as models and propose a class project to answer this research question: How can kids organize to contribute to climate-change research?

To explicitly address the National Science Education Standards mentioned below, students will study the new Climate Change is a Public Health Issue map of the American Public Health Association that suggests negative consequences of climate change by region in the U.S.—such as a rise in insect-born diseases, increase in allergies and asthma, and threats to mental health related to changing environmental conditions.

Students may be confused about climate change, viewing it as a political argument among adults, perhaps even attaching it to the ideology of a particular political party. Take this opportunity to emphasize that climate change is first and foremost a scientific issue—and people may and do disagree about science. But all around the world, the scientific validity of a hypothesis is determined by rational, empirical evidence generated by careful observation, measurements, and repeatable experiments—not by political or personal opinions, anecdotes, impressions, or biases. As How We Know What We Know emphasizes on p. 8: "The theory of evolution, for example, is well established among scientists, even though it is unpopular with some people who think it conflicts with their beliefs. Theories can only be overturned by new scientific evidence." Scientific issues such as determining the presence, rate, and effects of global climate change are resolved only by scientific evidence from natural systems affected by climate.

How We Know What We Know about Our Changing Climate is a well-researched, highly readable, and visually rich book with a structure perfectly suited to classroom use. Each two-page spread is introduced with a headline on the left-hand page announcing a new aspect of climate change complexity. Students should go slowly through these two-page gems; each topic is dense with ideas. Great class discussions can by sparked on every page by deeply observing, analyzing, and responding to text, case studies, animals and plants highlighted, pictures, graphs, and maps. The authors frame scientific phenomena as mysteries to be solved by the deft interpretation of clues. They then apply that method in this case study of the scientific pursuit of the climate change issue.

The treatment of climate change science is both clear and comprehensive for grades 6-8 students. Structured into four major sections, the book illustrates:

  • the pattern of evidence that kids have helped scientists piece together about global change
  • how scientists interpret those clues to conclude that climate change is accelerating due to human activities
  • action steps that scientists and citizens—especially kids—can take to make a difference that helps avert the coming problems
  • how reading and other resources can be used to develop the climate change topic in the classroom
Ideas in this lesson are also related to concepts found in these Common Core State Standards:

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RST.6-8.7 Integrate quantitative or technical information expressed in words in a text with a version of that information expressed visually (e.g., in a flowchart, diagram, model, graph, or table).
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RST.6-8.9 Compare and contrast the information gained from experiments, simulations, video, or multimedia sources with that gained from reading a text on the same topic.
Read More


As a class, watch online Harder Rain, More Snow, a ScienceDaily newscast on computer model predictions of extreme weather changes. Students also can use their Learning about Phenology student esheet to go to and view this video.

Next, student should watch a second video Spring Flowers: Clues to Climate Change, again from ScienceDaily, about Project BudBurst.

Third, look at the Integrated Global System Model (ISGM) from MIT that describes what kinds of elements go into a model. At the page of the diagram, you can zoom in to make the image larger. This is a complicated model, so just concentrate on the concept of linked systems interacting in climate. Students should focus on the four quadrants of Earth System Elements: oceans, atmosphere, urban airshed, and land. They should concentrate on understanding how a "squashed world"—the flattened 3-D structure that this schematic captures—shows how land, air, oceans, plants, animals, and human activities are linked and how they interact to affect climate.

Discuss both videos and match information from them with the diagram of the MIT model. For example, in what quadrants of the Earth System Elements does increased precipitation fit? Answer: All. The hydrologic cycle transports ocean water through atmospheric evaporation and cooling to land/urban deposition. Point: Think Links!

Make the connection that models intend to directly pertain to the real world by using categories of information from it—some of which are generated by citizen scientists.

To determine students' prerequisite knowledge and to get them thinking about ways that they as students and citizens can contribute to climate change science, play "Climate Change Jeopardy" based on in-class reading of pp. 10 and 11 in the book, "Inspired by Students." In "Climate Change Jeopardy," you state the answers, as follows, looking for the "correct" questions from the students, as stated in boldface. Use these five Jeopardy ice breakers to generate brainstorming on what kind of class project the students could do:

  1. The Thousand Eyes Project. What project was begun 100 years ago in Nova Scotia, Canada to record the arrival of spring migrating birds?
  2. Many birds are changing their ranges. For example, the Baltimore Oriole is living farther north than it has in the past. In response to climate change, what is one thing data show birds are doing? Give one specific example.
  3. Project BudBurst, a citizen science effort of kids around the country to track seasonal changes of flowers and trees. Kids observing the emergence of flowers and leaves and writing down the description and date are engaged in what?
  4. Phenology. It's important because it is the study of seasonal changes in plants and animals, and since the seasons are affected by global warming, plant and animal behavior is too—which means they are important sources of data that tell us about climate change through their changing behavior. This term comes from the Greek word meaning "to appear." What is the word, and why is it important?
  5. It's the maple tree. It is expanding its range as formerly cold areas warm up. This tree is moving north. What is it and why?

For a short introduction to phenology, use a projector to display What Is Phenology? for group class viewing and discussion.

Before moving on to the Development section, establish a benchmark for the lesson by asking students: "What can you do to help fix the problem of climate change?" Write down their answers in a list, and post the list on a class wall. You will revisit this question at the end of the lesson.


To understand how data are gathered to gain insight from nature into climate warming, students will participate in a large-scale, citizen-science climate warming project as a class.

Students should plan and conduct a class phenology study to contribute to citizen science projects on climate change data. For ideas about good candidate species in your locale, your class can consult the website of your state university's Cooperative State Research and Educational Eextension Service. They may even have a speakers' bureau that supplies you with an in-class presenter free of charge who can speak to your topic and help kids become familiar with local plants and animals of concern. Another way to get guidance for picking a topic is to go to Getting Started with Project BudBurst.

Armed with notebooks and pencils, take your students on a field trip of the school grounds—viewed through windows if the weather is prohibitive—to identify ways you could join online phenology, citizen-science projects that contribute to existing projects, such as Project BudBurst, by identifying a specific plant you can study in your area. Ask students to nominate a plant to track before they return to class.

In the classroom, students can prepare to commit to become citizen observers by listening to the podcast with Lynne Cherry and Gary Braasch, authors of How We Know What We Know about Our Changing Climate: Scientists & Kids Explore Global Warming.

After you have listened to the podcast, draw three columns on a white board and label them:

  • Object of Study (What)
  • Method (How)
  • Research Rationale (Why)

Ask the class for their picks of a plant for which they want to collect data. Help them link the research rationale and methods to ideas the authors expressed in the podcast.

To begin to contribute to climate change data, students should do the exercise on the Learning About Phenology student sheet. In this exercise, students learn about the eight phenophases of a plant.

Once they understand the eight phases of a plant they are looking for, they can start observing that plant over an eight-week period. They can record their observations on the Observation Form from Project BudBurst. They may check in daily, but they must fill in this form at the same time and day every week, looking for signs of each of the eight phenophases.

When they are finished, they can turn in their data to join a national data stream. Register as a class online for Project BudBurst and review Internet safety strategies when you do: don't ever give your address, full name, or age online without the permission and knowledge of a parent or trusted teacher. Students should use their esheet to go to Project BudBurst: Getting Started to register as a Regular Observer or a Single Report so they can participate in adding data to its database. Once they've registered, they'll be provided with the resources they need to report their observations.

Conclude in class by having each student write a three-paragraph summary on their Learning about Phenology student sheet of What they did, Why they did it, and How they will follow their project to see how the work contributes to larger efforts for citizen scientists and professional scientists.


To assess student understanding, start an "If a Million Kids...." climate-change challenge project as follows. As a class, read aloud pps. 54-55, "What You—and a Million Kids—Can Do," in the book on steps kids/families can take to slow climate change.

Then, help students connect ideas mentioned on these pages and their phenology project to a benchmark concept with phrases such as: "Data show that climates have sometimes changed abruptly in the past as a result of changes in the earth's crust, such as volcanic eruptions or impacts of huge rocks from space. Even relatively small changes in atmospheric or ocean content can have widespread effects on climate if the change lasts long enough. How can one kid riding a bike instead of being driven in a car make a difference?" Hint: What does a car emit? Or "What difference to the planet's heat budget can one tree make?" Hint: Think CO2 reduction, which in turn reduces atmospheric heat load.

Now revisit the list the class created in the Motivation in response to the question: "What can you do to help fix the problem of climate change?" Add their new answers to the list and post them on a class wall—hopefully the list is much longer!

Finally, students should make an "If a Million Kids" montage in the form of "a personal earth." After reviewing action steps that kids and families can take on the text's pp. 54-55, give each student a sheet of construction paper, access to old magazines, glue sticks, and scissors. Have each make a montage of a "personal earth" similar to the one on p. 55, highlighting montaged pictures of things they love about life and the earth. At the top, students should entitle it "My Vision for Earth." With the montage's globe centered on the sheet of paper, they should leave enough room in the left and right margins to write clearly three action steps on the left margin, and three on the right margin.

For a fuller treatment, students may add a second sheet..."If We Don't Change Behavior..." based on the Climate Change is a Public Health Issue map of projected effects of climate change.

When finished, post a gallery display of all montages, and invite a younger classroom to visit the gallery so the older students can "show, tell, and teach" the younger students.


These Science NetLinks lessons could be used as extensions. If desired, have students make a simple schematic diagram of the main elements and processes of the hydrological cycle.

Further address Earth science benchmarks by applying global warming effects to the thought that the entire globe is linked by water through the hydrological cycle, which is temperature dependent. Global warming therefore very much affects it. In the hydrological cycle, water leaves the oceans through evaporation and returns through atmospheric cooling and condensation as rain or snow that eventually enters watersheds that flow to the oceans. El Niño is a well-documented, periodic temperature disturbance that affects sea surface warming—which interacts with air and alters the hydrological cycle in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean, an area where the climate, geography, and people are not prepared for the unusual weather events.

Humans are affected by global warming through economics, which is the system of producing, buying and selling things at markets and stores. Economic impacts of climate change are referenced at these websites:

Funder Info
Science NetLinks is proud to have Subaru as a funder of this project.

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Lesson Details

Grades Themes Type Project 2061 Benchmarks National Science Standards