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Smithsonian Learning Lab


K, 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th


Science, Biology, Earth and Space Sciences, Mathematics

Resource Types

  • Lesson Plans
  • Activity - Classroom
  • Worksheets
  • Experiments
  • Videos, 1 minutes, 55 seconds, CC, Subtitles
  • Videos, 4 minutes, 56 seconds, CC, Subtitles
  • Interactive Media

Regional Focus




Prehistoric Climate Change and Why It Matters Today

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  • Through this lesson and experiment, students make observations and draw conclusions about what the climate was like 55 million years ago.
  • Students are introduced to combining math, science, and paleontology to better understand the history of the Earth and how it has changed over time.
Teaching Tips


  • This is a great way to introduce students to fieldwork, data collection, and analysis.
  • The lesson plan includes in-depth background information on prehistoric climates, the greenhouse effect, fossil records, an answer key, and a step-by-step guide to the exercise.

Additional Prerequisites

  • It is easiest to view the materials by downloading the PDF.
  • Although not specified in the lesson plan, playing the videos may be best to provide students with context before the activity.
  • Unfortunately, the link to the interactive activity does not work, but it is not necessary for the activity.


  • Teachers can use this lesson as an opportunity to introduce climate models.
  • The background information available in the lesson plan can be given to students for more advanced classes as extra reading.
  • This other activity can be used to learn more about analyzing past climates through paleontology, and this similar activity can be used to learn about other ways of looking at past climates.
Scientist Notes
This resource contains lessons on how the climate system is changing, but it is important to study past climates to be able to infer and project future climate risk. Thus, this resource lets students understand paleoclimate and how to analyze past climate from fossils and proxies to estimate temperature and rainfall changes and how it might affect biodiversity, living things, humans, and the planet. This resource is recommended for teaching.
  • Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS)
    • ESS3: Earth and Human Activity
      • MS-ESS3-5 Ask questions to clarify evidence of the factors that have caused the rise in global temperatures over the past century.
    • LS4: Biological Evolution: Unity and Diversity
      • MS-LS4-1 Analyze and interpret data for patterns in the fossil record that document the existence, diversity, extinction, and change of life forms throughout the history of life on Earth under the assumption that natural laws operate today as in the past.
  • Common Core English Language Arts Standards (CCSS.ELA)
    • Reading: Informational Text (K-12)
      • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.1.4 Ask and answer questions to help determine or clarify the meaning of words and phrases in a text.
  • Common Core Math Standards (CCSS.MATH)
    • Expressions & Equations (6-8)
      • CCSS.MATH.CONTENT.6.EE.B.5 Understand solving an equation or inequality as a process of answering a question: which values from a specified set, if any, make the equation or inequality true? Use substitution to determine whether a given number in a specified set makes an equation or inequality true.
    • Measurement & Data (K-5)
      • CCSS.MATH.CONTENT.2.MD.D.10 Draw a picture graph and a bar graph (with single-unit scale) to represent a data set with up to four categories. Solve simple put-together, take-apart, and compare problems using information presented in a bar graph.
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