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Climate Change Field Trip

Climate Change Field Trip

The Exploratorium hosts field trips almost every day of the school year, with students following a wide variety of subjects through our exhibits and demonstrations. But last Thursday, March 3—at an event called Day at the Piers—more than 900 middle and high school students arrived at the museum to focus on climate change through two specifically curated themes: carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and sea level rise.

All of the teachers whose classes attended Day at the Piers, had prepared by attending a Teacher Institute workshop in November, where they learned classroom activities they could do in advance that would connect with the climate change themes.

And Field Trip Explainers had also prepared thoroughly, working with staff from the Exploratorium’s Teacher Institute and Environment Initiative to prepare 10 demonstration stations throughout the East Gallery and Fisher Bay Observatory Gallery.

Students who followed the sea level rise theme began outdoors by measuring tidal water levels using a thoroughly low-tech device—a rope with a weight at one end, and taped markings at one-foot intervals.

An Explainer helped students lower the rope into the Bay to measure the water’s depth. (This is the same method coastal surveyors first used to map the Bay’s bathymetry back in the 1800s.)


The students recorded their measurements in chalk on a full-scale graph on the cement nearby. This created a picture of how the tide was rising and falling over the course of the day. Some classes returned later in the day to take another measurement and see how much the tide had shifted.


Upstairs in the Fisher Bay Observatory Gallery, students explored tide data over a much longer time scale, by analyzing the 150-year data series from the Golden Gate Bridge tide station. The students observed the seasonal highs and lows, and variations from year to year. Explainer Gaily Ezer reported, "Students were hypothesizing about the spikes in the graph and came up with a lot of guesses: maybe the rains in the winter cause them, maybe the moon is closer half the year, maybe El Niño,” which was the correct answer.

Students also used a string to help them observe the gradual upward slope of the entire graph. This shows that sea levels are steadily rising, a phenomenon caused by global climate change. They used a second piece of string to make predictions of how much more sea levels might rise by 2050.


Across the gallery at the Changing Shorelines visualization, students looked at how future sea level rise would cause increased flooding of roads, cities, and even their own schools. A knob enabled them to add between two and six feet of water depth to the map of the Bay’s current shoreline.

Students from Belle Haven School in Menlo Park watched a marker for their school turn blue, meaning it would be flooded by a sea level rise four feet or more. This sparked wide-ranging discussions about what we might be able to do in the Bay Area to hold back sea level rise, and how we might adapt to it.


Other classes were following the Carbon Dioxide in the Amosphere theme, which also offered many opportunities to engage with climate change data. Several classes over the course of the day contributed to a graph of carbon dioxide measurements recorded over 40 years at the Mauna Loa station in Hawaii.

They used one sticker to record each monthly carbon dioxide measurement.


The completed graph—showing a clear upward trend, as well as seasonal cycles—stretched more than thirty feet along the railing above the East Gallery.


At the ocean acidification demonstration, Explainers used a simple chemical reaction to show how higher levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are making the world’s oceans more acidic. They also discussed how this is harming marine life.

With sensitive pH indicators, Explainers showed how carbon dioxide reacts with water to form a weak acid—the same process that’s happening in the oceans. This gradual acidification of the oceans is making it harder and harder for some shellfish to build strong shells.


The Day at the Piers offered a deep dive into climate change data. But it’s only one component of a project, funded in part by the Oak Meadow Foundation, that is helping visitors better understand the environmental systems through data.