Simulating Climate Change Research in Grasslands

What You Need


  • More time tells a different story about plants and climate change This article has been split into parts A and B so that students will not see what the research results were prior to their experiments.
  • How We Know What We Know about Our Changing Climate: Scientists and Kids Explore Global Warming, by Lynne Cherry and Gary Braasch
  • An available grassy area of adequate dimensions is required to set up experimental plots
  • A hose, watering can, or some other method to water the plots
  • Meter stick for measuring the plot dimensions
  • Survey flags to distinguish the research plot
  • Scissors for harvesting above-ground material at the conclusion of the experiment
  • Two brown paper lunch bags per plot for collecting the above-ground material (one bag for grass plants, one bag for non-grass plants)
  • Drying oven (if available) for drying collected plant samples
Simulating Climate Change Research in Grasslands


To understand organism interactions and how those interactions shift in response to climate change, especially in grassland communities.


Climate change has been discussed widely in newspapers, magazines, science books, and professional science journals. This lesson provides you with an opportunity to explore the climate change concept with your students in more depth. Many science topics can be explored in relation to climate change. Here, the focus is on how organisms interact (plant competition specifically) and how the dynamics of those interactions may potentially vary based on climate change predictions.

Since there are many physical conditions across the world, we find a variety of ecosystems, such as forests, deserts, oceans, grasslands, and many others. Organisms that live in these ecosystems interact with each other and the environment in various ways, and these interactions are generally stable over hundreds or thousands of years. However, the stability of ecosystems changes with events such as the appearance of new species by migration or evolution, introductions of new species by humans, or, as in this case, climate change. (Science for All Americans, pp. 65-66.)

After eighth grade, students should have a basic understanding of the Interdependence of Life Strands: that organisms interact within ecosystems, that ecosystem structure can change, that organisms are dependent on their environment, and that human activities can ultimately have an impact on those ecosystems. (Benchmarks for Science Literacy, pp. 65-66.) However, students often have misconceptions about climate change and its effects on ecosystems. Therefore, it is important for teachers to query their students to discover these misconceptions.

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Planning Ahead

Student permission slip from parent/guardian may be necessary for work on this project depending on your school policies.

Forms or additional paperwork may be required to use school grounds, forewarn maintenance, etc., depending on your school's policies and procedures.

Reading materials for you: Communicating and Learning about Global Climate Change, from AAAS, 2007.


Since climate change has been discussed widely in newspapers, magazines, science books, etc., you should begin with a brainstorming session to assess what your students know or misconceptions they might have about climate change. You can begin the brainstorming session by asking your students directly what they have heard about climate change. You may want to consider these prompts to keep the discussion going and write out their answers on a chart:

  • Many times the phrase "global warming" is used interchangeably with "global climate change." Are they really interchangeable phrases? If not, what is the difference between the two ideas?
      (No, they are not interchangeable, but they are definitely related. The term "global warming" refers to the gradual increase of the surface temperature of the earth because of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane. "Global climate change" refers to differences in the change of conditions on the earth. Some places may warm but others cool. Some areas may see increases in precipitation where other areas have decreases. The term "global climate change" more accurately describes the changes occurring on earth and seems to be the preferred term rather than "global warming" which implies that warming will occur everywhere.)
  • What kinds of evidence support the climate change concept?
      (This question gives you the opportunity to discuss the evidence from the How We Know What We Know about Our Changing Climate: Scientists and Kids Explore Global Warming book. The book outlines multiple lines of evidence.)
  • What climate changes are predicted for our town, state, or region?
      (The answer to this question varies by region. See the resources in the next question.)
  • Where could we find this information?
      (Students can check these websites and check your region: National Weather Service's Climate Prediction Center and the United States Global Climate Change Research Program document.)
  • Is there anything we can do to address problems associated with global climate change?
      (You can discuss what it means to be "green" and how making changes in your lifestyle can help address the concerns of global climate change. There are multiple resources for ideas, including the National Renewable Energy Lab website for smaller scale ideas.)

Next, students should read How We Know What We Know about Our Changing Climate: Scientists and Kids Explore Global Warming, by Lynne Cherry and Gary Braasch. This book is a good introduction to the types of evidence collected by scientists to support the theory of climate change (see more about this book at Winner! Middle Grades Science Book ). After completing the book, return to the ideas generated in the brainstorming session regarding climate change. Discuss students' previous ideas and any new ones they might have after reading the book. If preferred, you may use a more formalized reading strategy and K-W-L chart with this.

This is a formalized strategy to prepare students to read the How We Know What We Know about Our Changing Climate by using a K-W-L chart (you can refer to the K-W-L page from the National Education Association for more information). With the K-W-L, you determine what students know ("K") about climate change (thus uncovering student misconceptions) and what students want to know ("W") about climate change prior to reading a book. Following the reading, their K-W-L chart can be completed by discussing what students learned from the book ("L"). 


Scientists currently are doing research related to global climate change. For example, at the  Angelo Costal Range Reserve, scientists and university students are working on a variety of research topics, including studying how future climate change may affect ecosystems in Northern California grasslands. Specifically, scientists are conducting National Science Foundation-funded research on how predicted increases in rainfall affect interactions between organisms in a meadow. One interesting avenue of the research focuses on how differences in interactions may affect the stability of the grassland ecosystems. Students should use their Simulating Climate Change student esheet to go to and read a brief article about this grassland meadow research, More time tells a different story about plants and climate change, Part A, and answer the corresponding questions on the Plants and Climate Change student sheet. Answers to the questions can be found on the Plants and Climate Change teacher sheet.

After the students read the article, they should continue through the esheet to get even more information about the research by going to and watching Climate Change Research in California, Part A, and answer the corresponding questions. In this video, students will see that scientists aren't just people in lab coats. Students will see a mix of people doing research trying to find the answers to scientific questions. Students also will learn how professional scientists and college students interested in science are involved in fieldwork on the Angelo Reserve.

After students finish answering the questions for the article and the video, you should discuss the article, the video, and student responses as a class. From the article and the video, students should understand the point of the research. Basically, precipitation increases are predicted for the Angelo Reserve. The researchers added extra water to model the precipitation change forecasts for the Northern California area. They then studied how the grassland reorganized itself after the water additions over a span of five years. This experiment demonstrates the importance of interacting species in the community.

To simulate a portion of the research, students will participate in an inquiry-based science activity. You should ask the students to predict what they think happened because of the water addition in the Angelo Reserve experiments, as read and seen in Part A of the video. You should then have students test their predictions in their own schoolyard using the inquiry-based activity. 

The amount of guidance provided by you will dictate how the experiment is set up. You can use the Simulating Climate Change Experiment teacher sheet as one potential way to guide one class of about 30 students through this simulation. Students can record their observations on the Simulating Climate Change Experiment student sheet.

After the students complete their simulation, have students return to their esheet to go to and read More time tells a different story about plants and climate change, Part B and watch the Climate Change Research in California, Part B to learn about the results of the research conducted on the Angelo Reserve. Students should answer the corresponding questions on their Plants and Climate Change student sheet and discuss their responses as a class. Answers to these questions can be found on the Plants and Climate Change teacher sheet.


After students have the opportunity to act like a scientist, they can write like a scientist too. This simulation provides an opportunity for students to write up a lab report about their experiment and how it relates to their original prediction. Students should specifically include information about their observations in terms of interactions between organisms, how the water additions affected the growth of the plants in their "ecosystem," and how their data compares to the research conducted at the Angelo Reserve.

Students can connect their experimental results to the larger region. In the student lab report, they should discuss connections between their experimental results and regional climate predictions. Discussion of future experiments based on regional predictions could be added to this section of the lab report. Students should discuss a watering regime in future experiments which would more closely simulate rainfall predictions for your region. What long-term impact(s) might an increase in precipitation over many years have on your region?


Longitudinal study: You can build a class produced database of results by keeping graphs generated from each year's class. Over time, the variation in graphed annual results would be an interesting in-class discussion topic. Students would benefit from seeing the differences in results from similar experimental procedures.

Observing insects: The procedure in the suggested experimental layout did not involve looking at any insects. An additional extension could include changes in insect populations between the control and experimental plots. While you may not be able to key out all of the insects to the species level, you can observe changes in population numbers of general groups of insects.

You should consider the potential this experiment has for getting students more involved with research. There are many good avenues for student research presentations available through venues such as Junior Science and Humanities Symposium or Intel Science Talent Search.

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Lesson Details

Grades Themes Type Project 2061 Benchmarks State Standards
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