January 03, 2019

Dimitra Neonakis

Cool Classroom Activity: Ice Core Mini Lesson

Topics: STEM Education / Play, Learning at Home, Learning Through Play, STEM, STEAM

Screen Shot 2018-12-18 at 4.41.02 PM.png

Looking to make climate change and proxy data hands on and accessible to students? Then this is the lesson for you!

In this mini-lesson, students will use simulated ice cores to make hands-on measurements and observations to help them construct an understanding of how scientists use proxy data as evidence of climate change.

Screen Shot 2019-01-03 at 12.10.07 PM 
Photo courtesy of Crow Canyon

Students will measure and analyze ice core photos

Students will read an infographic to extract information

Students will participate in group discussion

Students will write a reflection in response to question prompts


iPads with ice core photos or actual simulated ice cores

Millimeter rulers or digital calipers

Chart paper or white board


Screen Shot 2019-01-03 at 12.10.19 PMPhoto courtesy of EO Images



Ask students what they think of when they think of the coldest places on earth (possible answers include the North and South poles, glaciers, winter, mountaintops, Greenland, Iceland, Siberia, and a freezer).

Make students’ thinking visible by writing their answers on chart paper or whiteboard with colorful markers.

Ask students how they think scientists might study ice and snow in those places (keep the conversation brief).

Screen Shot 2019-01-03 at 12.11.16 PMPhoto courtesy of Sepetjian



Briefly explain the concept of ice cores as you show the photos uploaded to the iPads.

What do students notice about the layers (they are different colors, different widths)?

Invite student groups to use the rulers or digital calipers to measure the layers of the ice cores. Each layer represents a season of snowfall.

Point out the layer with the bubbles. Briefly explain that air gets trapped in the snow and ice that preserves information about the atmosphere at the time the snow fell.

Scientists can extract and analyze this air to learn about the gasses in the atmosphere, like oxygen and carbon dioxide. This can help them understand the climate in the past.

By understanding past climate, scientists can try to understand how present conditions might change in the future.

Screen Shot 2019-01-03 at 12.10.32 PM

Photo courtesy of BPCRC


Words you can use

  • Ice core: A sample extracted using a special drill. Layers represent seasons.
  • Cryosphere: All the ice on Earth.
  • Proxy Data: Data collected from ancient deposits like sediments or ice cores that can give us information about the past even though we weren’t there to observe directly.

Next Generation Science Standards Alignment

Screen Shot 2018-12-18 at 4.27.58 PM

Photo Courtesy of Next Generation Science Standards

Expand on the Activity

To learn about ice cores in depth, Compound Interest provides a helpful infographic that teachers can use, along with a great article about ice cores.


Photo courtesy of Compound Interest


Teachers can also play this video to wrap up the activity:


And lastly, here are some question prompts for teachers to use with the follow up activities:

  1. What is proxy data?
  2. How do scientists use proxy data from ice cores?
  3. What kinds of analysis can scientists do on the air trapped in ice cores and how can they use what they find?
  4. What kinds of predictions can scientists make using climate data from the past? How might they generate these predictions?
  5. What are some other kinds of proxy data scientists might use? Could they use other data to support the data from ice cores?

Here are the ice cores we made:

If you wish to extend the experience there is a unit plan using data from the ice core lab in Boulder on my patron blog for subscribers.

 Have fun!


Screen Shot 2018-02-14 at 10.28.31 AMDimitra Neonakis always had a love for science and nature, but came late in life to formal science education. With degrees in visual and performing arts and an environmental monitoring certificate, Dimitra brings her A game to STEAM education. Dimitra has designed and classroom-tested science activities for formal and informal k-12 and collegiate science education since 2005. She works both with at risk and neurodiverse populations as well as typical students. Students fondly refer to her as Ms. Dee and Ms. Frizzle and they all agree that science is fun!


Are you a former or current educator who is interested in guest blogging for ThinkFun? Please contact us for more information! You could be featured in our next blog post and TeachFun e-newsletter!
New call-to-action