Learning about Climate:
An Exploration in Geography and Mathematics


Hollylynne Stohl Drier and John K. Lee

On a recent trip to San Francisco, California in February, Courtney, a 4th grade student, sent a postcard about the weather to her Aunt Fran in Dodge City, Kansas. She wrote: “It is raining and 55°. Is it cold at home? I am glad that there is no snow here.” Based on what Courtney wrote, what could your students find out about the weather in both San Francisco and Dodge City? Could they locate the two cities on a U.S. map (figure 1)? Could they find any similarities or differences in their geographic locations? What might Courtney have written on the postcard if she had visited San Francisco in July? The postcard gives a hint about the weather in each city in the month of February. How do the temperatures in these cities compare during other times of the year?

Courtney’s postcard provides a great introduction for an interdisciplinary exploration in U.S. geography and mathematics. In the social studies standards, National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) called for students in early and middle grades to work with places “distant and unfamiliar,” have experiences that “encourage abstract thought,” and make use of data related to their “physical and cultural environment.”1 In addition, in the mathematics standards, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) has advocated that problem solving, reasoning, communication, and connections be woven throughout K-12 mathematics instruction.2 Technology tools such as the Internet and spreadsheets can serve as a catalyst for teachers to create interdisciplinary, real-world projects that engage students in meaningful activities aligned with the goals of NCSS and NCTM.

The project described in this article incorporates several objectives in both geography and mathematics that are appropriate for students at the 4th and 5th grade level. Many of the ideas can be adapted to students at other grade levels. The skill of reading a map with lines of latitude and longitude as well as learning about climatic regions are important for young geographers. It is also important for young mathematicians to interpret data through using appropriate statistical measures (e.g., mean, median, and range). In the project, students collect temperature data from online resources, utilize a spreadsheet to organize the data, perform calculations, create line and bar graphs, and use critical thinking skills to analyze and interpret the data. Technology is not intended to be the focus of learning in this activity; rather, it empowers teachers and students to explore important geographic and mathematical concepts.

An Interdisciplinary U.S. Temperature Project

To explore the question of what Courtney might write on the postcard in July, or any other month, students can use the Internet to research weather conditions in both cities. In addition, students can locate the two cities on a map of the United States containing lines of latitude and longitude (figure 1). They will find that San Francisco and Dodge City are located approximately along the same line of latitude. This observation may lead students to conclude that the weather in San Francisco and Dodge City should be similar. Is there a relationship between a city’s geographical location and its temperatures throughout the year? Students who might have lived in or visited various regions of the U. S. could offer personal experiences and anecdotal data. In addition to a belief that cities with similar latitude have similar temperatures, students might also conjecture that cities in the northern U. S. have colder temperatures than cities in the southern U.S.

To investigate temperatures in San Francisco and Dodge City, and the relationship between a city’s geographic location and its temperatures, students can explore the average monthly temperatures in several sets of U.S. cities (see table 1). Groups of students can critically analyze the temperatures in sets of three cities either with similar latitude or with similar longitude. Students can locate their three cities’ temperature data on the Internet and enter the data into a spreadsheet for analysis. (The exact web addresses used in this project are listed in table 2.)


How Do Temperatures in San Francisco and Dodge City Compare?

To help determine what Courtney would write on her postcard in July, let’s investigate the temperatures in San Francisco, CA, Dodge City, KS, and Richmond, VA. These three cities are all located approximately 37.6°N in latitude. We found the average monthly temperatures for these cities on the Internet and entered them in a spreadsheet (figure 2). The monthly temperature data gives students enough information to discuss what Courtney might have written on her postcard in July. The temperature in San Francisco might still be in the 50s or 60s while Dodge City would be much warmer at about 80°.

Let’s take a closer look at the temperature trends throughout the year. What are the annual average temperatures for these three cities? How much do the temperatures vary throughout the year? Since the data is in a spreadsheet, students can use formulas (see table 3) to calculate the annual average and range of temperatures and create a bar and line graph to visually display the temperature trends (figure 3).

If you look only at the annual average temperature, each city looks very similar with means about 56°-57°. However, the graphical picture of the monthly averages, and the numerical values of the range, give a more complete picture of temperatures throughout the year. No matter when Courtney visits San Francisco, the temperature will usually be very close to the annual average temperature of 57.7° while the temperatures in Dodge City and Richmond will vary widely according to the season. Thus, students can discover that an “average” temperature does not give a complete summary of a set of data.

Teachers can also use the graphs and statistics from these three cities as the basis for an interesting discussion about the effect of the Pacific Ocean on San Francisco’s seasonal temperatures. All three cities’ temperatures are affected by prevailing westerly winds. However, San Francisco’s temperature is moderated by the wind as it blows off the Pacific Ocean while Dodge City and Richmond are affected by the westerly winds blowing over large, potentially cooler, land masses.

The relationship between the annual average temperatures in Richmond, Dodge City, and San Francisco illustrates that a city’s latitudinal position will not necessarily determine its climate. Early European explorers planted crops in American colonies because these crops successfully grew at similar latitudes in Asia. However, the climate in America was far different than that in Asia and the crops failed.


Planning a Trip to the Winter 2000 Olympic Games

Suppose Courtney’s family is planning another trip to the western United States. They would like to attend the winter 2000 Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, Utah. However, they would like to start their trip north of Salt Lake City in the capital of Montana, Helena, and end their trip just south of Utah in Flagstaff, Arizona. These cities are all located at approximately 111.85° W in longitude, but vary in their latitudinal positions. If Courtney’s family will be traveling in January, what type of clothing should they pack for their trip? In order to help them make an informed decision, we can investigate the temperatures in each of these cities. Again, the data can be found on the Internet and entered into a spreadsheet (figure 4), and students can calculate the average and range, and create a line graph
(figure 5).

Just as we might have suspected, the average temperatures for these cities in January are warmer the further south the city is located. Courtney’s family would need to include clothing such as sweaters, pants, turtlenecks, coats and mittens. They would expect the temperature to be coldest in Helena and about 10° warmer in both Salt Lake City and Flagstaff. Suppose Courtney’s family couldn’t make it to the Olympics and decided to re-plan the trip for the summer. Do the temperatures follow a similar pattern (coldest in Helena and slightly warmer in both Salt Lake City and Flagstaff) throughout the entire year?

By closely analyzing the table of data and graph, students should notice that although Flagstaff is further south than Helena, the average monthly temperatures in Flagstaff are slightly colder than temperatures in Helena from April through August. However, Helena is colder than Flagstaff during the other seven months, especially during December and January. Thus, once again, the average temperatures need to be considered along with the range of temperatures and the graphical display of the monthly temperature trends.

This example confounds the notion that cities further south are necessarily warmer than those in the northern U.S. and could be used to introduce students to the effects of altitude and climatic regions on temperature. Although Flagstaff is in Arizona, which is usually associated with dry desert conditions, Flagstaff is actually in the mountainous region of northern Arizona while Helena, Montana lies on a lower plateau. Similar effects of altitude are found in various parts of the world. For example, the cold temperatures in the mountainous region of Tibet can be contrasted with the warmer temperatures northward in China. Once again, the altitude of these locations directly affects the climate.


Other Suggested Activities to Include in this Project

> Discuss the general temperature trend throughout the year in the city in which you live. Younger students could draw a picture to depict the temperature in each of the four seasons. Students in upper elementary grades could create a bar graph of the “average” temperature (from their personal experiences) for each month of the year and compare this graph with the data found on the Internet.

> Have students pretend to visit a selected city. They can draw a picture of what they would pack in their suitcase and create a postcard that includes a description of the weather in the place they are visiting.

> Students can practice their mapping skills by locating a city on a blank map when given only its
latitude and longitude position. Students can also do this electronically using the National Atlas of the United States website.

> Explore the temperature trends for several sets of cities included in table 1. Compare the temperature trends of cities with similar latitude to those with similar longitude. What general observations can be made?

> Have students conjecture locations in the U.S. and in the world that might have similar monthly temperatures. Challenge them to find a location that has a temperature trend opposite of another city they have investigated. This task leads students into comparing temperature trends in the northern and southern hemispheres.

> Students in upper elementary grades could use mathematical concepts of ratio and proportion to convert the decimal values of each city’s latitude and longitude position to degrees, minutes, and seconds.



Courtney’s travels can help students learn multiple social studies and mathematics concepts. By focusing on data collection, calculation, interpretation, and analysis, students learn important skills that can be directly applied to real-world decision making situations. In addition, the technology tools provide a vehicle for students to investigate temperature trends in a meaningful, exploratory manner and enable them to take an active part in their learning.3 Empowered with technological and analytical skills, imagine how your students can use their geographical and mathematical knowledge to actively help their family plan and pack for their next trip.



1. National Council for the Social Studies, Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for Social Studies (Washington: DC.: National Council for the Social Studies, 1994).

2. National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, Curriculum and Evaluation Standards for School Mathematics (Reston: VA: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics,1989).

3. President’s Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology, Panel on Educational Technology, Report to the President on the use of Technology to Strengthen K-12 Education in the United States (Washington: DC, 1997).


About the Authors

Hollylynne Stohl Drier is a doctoral student in mathematics education and John K. Lee is a doctoral student in social studies education at the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville. The Curry Center for Technology and Teacher Education at the University of Virginia (on the World Wide Web at curry.edschool.virginia.edu/teacherlink) is currently funded to develop materials to help pre-service and in-service social studies and mathematics teachers incorporate appropriate uses of technology into their teaching. The temperature project presented in this article is an excerpt from an activity developed to demonstrate how technology can be effectively used to foster real world, interdisciplinary learning in social studies and mathematics classrooms.

©1999 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.