Data Nuggets for the Classroom

Classroom exercises in evidence-based claims & graphing

Data Nuggets are targeted classroom activities focused on developing quantitative skills for K-16 students. They are created from recent and ongoing research, bringing cutting edge science into the classroom and helping scientists share their work with broad audiences. The standard format of each Data Nugget provides background information about a scientist and their research, along with how they became interested in their research questions and system that they study. Each Data Nugget includes a real dataset for students to graph, interpret, and use to construct an explanation.

Data Nuggets are designed and developed by Elizabeth Schultheis and Melissa Kjelvik from Michigan State University, both former KBS LTER graduate students. They have been under development since 2011 and originated through conversations between science teachers and graduate students during the KBS LTER NSF GK-12 project “New GK-12: Using the STEM Dimensions of Bioenergy Sustainability to Bring Leading-edge Graduate Research to K-12 Learning Settings”.

Melissa and Liz took what they started at the KBS LTER to the national level – read about the history of the project and current activities at: All Data Nuggets based on data from across the LTER Network can be found at

Data Nuggets based on KBS LTER data

Most of us use fossil fuels every day. Fossil fuels power our cars, heat and cool our homes, and are used to produce most of the things we buy. These energy sources are called “fossil” fuels because they are made from plants and animals that grew hundreds of millions of years ago. After these species died, their tissues were slowly converted into coal, oil, and natural gas. An important fact about fossil fuels is that they are limited and nonrenewable. It takes a long time for dead plants and animals to be converted into fossil fuels. Once we run out of the supply we have on Earth today, we are out! We need to think of new ways to power our world now that we use more energy than ever.

When two species do better when they cooperate than they would on their own, the relationship is called a mutualism. One example of a mutualism is the relationship between a type of bacteria, rhizobia, and legume plants. Legumes include plants like peas, beans, soybeans, and clover. Rhizobia live in bumps on the legume roots, where they trade their nitrogen for sugar from the plants. Rhizobia fix nitrogen from the air into a form that plants can use. This means that legumes that have rhizobia living in their roots can get more nitrogen than those that don’t.

Mutualisms are a special type of relationship in nature where two species work together and both benefit. Each partner trades with the other species, giving a resource and getting one in return. This cooperation leads to partner species doing better when the other is around, and without their partner, each species would have a harder time getting resources. One important mutualism is between clover, a type of plant, and rhizobia, a type of bacteria. Rhizobia live in small bumps on the clovers’ roots, called nodules, and receive protection and sugar food from the plant. In return, the rhizobia trade nitrogen to the plant, which plants need to photosynthesize and make new DNA. This mutualism works well when soil nitrogen is rare, because it is hard for the plant to collect enough nitrogen on its own, and the plant must rely on rhizobia to get all the nitrogen it needs. But what happens when humans change the game by fertilizing the soil? When nitrogen is no longer rare, will one partner begin to cheat and no longer act as a mutualist?

Every day we add more greenhouse gases to our air when we burn fossil fuels like oil, coal, and natural gas. Greenhouse gasses trap the sun’s heat, so as we add more the Earth is heating up! What does climate change mean for the species on our planet? The timing of life cycle events for plants and animals, like flowering and migration, is largely determined by cues organisms take from the environment. The timing of these events is called phenology. Scientists studying phenology are interested in how climate change will influence different species. For example, with warming temperatures and more unpredictable transitions between seasons, what can we expect to happen to the migration timings of birds, mating seasons for animals, or flowering times of plants?

Humans are changing the earth in many ways, including warming the planet by burning fossil fuels and adding greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere. Scientists have documented rising temperatures across the globe and predict an increase of 3° C in Michigan within the next 100 years. Humans are also changing the earth by transporting species across the globe, introducing them into new habitats. These introduced species may cause problems in their new habitats. Additionally, increasing temperature from climate change may change the way that native and introduced plants and animals interact.

If you dig through soil, you’ll notice that soil is not hard like a rock, but contains many air pockets between soil grains. These spaces in the soil contain gases, which together are called the soil atmosphere. The soil atmosphere contains the same gases as the atmosphere that surrounds us above ground, but in different concentrations. It has the same amount of nitrogen, slightly less oxygen (O2), 3-100 times more carbon dioxide (CO2), and 5-30 times more nitrous oxide (N2O, which is laughing gas!). Nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide are two greenhouse gasses responsible for much of the warming of global average temperatures. Sometimes soils give off, or emit, these greenhouse gases into the earth’s atmosphere, adding to climate change. Currently scientists are working to figure out why soils emit different amounts of these greenhouse gasses.

Greenhouse gases in our atmosphere, like carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), and nitrous oxide (N2O), trap heat from the sun and warm the earth. We need some greenhouse gases to keep the planet warm enough for life. But today, the majority (97%) of scientists agree that the levels of greenhouse gases are getting dangerously high and are causing changes in our climate that may be hard for us to adjust to. When we burn fuels to heat and cool our homes or power our cars we release greenhouse gasses. Most of the energy used today comes from fossil fuels. These energy sources are called “fossil” fuels because they come from plants, algae, and animals that lived hundreds of millions of years ago! After they died, their tissues were buried and slowly turned into coal, oil, and natural gas. An important fact about fossil fuels is that when we use them, they release CO2 into our atmosphere that was stored millions of years ago. The release of this stored carbon is adding more and more greenhouse gases to our atmosphere, and much faster than today’s plants and algae can remove during photosynthesis. In order to reduce the effects of climate change, we need to change the way we use energy and think of new ways to power our world.

More information and downloadable files are available at

All Data Nuggets based on LTER data from across the LTER Network can be found at