Calculating Population Density

Calculating Population Density

Students calculate population density in the United States and describe some of the patterns in the results.


9 - 12


Geography, Human Geography

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This activity is part of an Idea Set called People and Wildlife in India.


  • Materials You Provide: calculators; paper; pencils; pens
  • Required Technology: Internet access; 1 computer per learner
  • Physical Space: classroom
  • Grouping: small-group instruction


Population density describes the number of individuals occupying an area in relation to the size of the area they occupy. It’s helpful to analyze the population density of the United States at different scales in order to find patterns.


Students will:

  • calculate the population density for each state and the United States as a whole
  • identify multiple reasons for high population densities

Teaching Approach: learning-for-use

Teaching Methods: discussions; information organization

Skills Summary

This activity targets the following skills:

  • Critical Thinking Skills: analyzing; remembering; understanding
  • Geographic Skills
    • Acquiring Geographic Information
    • Analyzing Geographic Information


1. Introduce the activity.
Ask: What do you think the population of the United States is? Have students check their predictions against the U.S. Census Bureau Population Clock. Then ask students to predict which states are most and least populated. Tell them they can confirm their predictions later in this activity. Explain that students will calculate the population density for each individual state and then the United States as a whole. Write the formula for figuring out population density on the board:

Number of People ÷ The Area They Occupy = Population Density

2. Have students complete the worksheet.
Provide each student with a copy of the worksheet United States Population Density and a calculator. Have students use QuickFacts on the U.S. Census Bureau website to get current land area and estimated population data. Then ask students to use the population density formula and a calculator to calculate the population density for each state. Next, have students rank the states from highest population density to lowest using numbers 1–50. Finally, to calculate the average for the entire United States, have students first total the land area for each state, then the estimated population for each state, and then use the same formula to calculate population density.

3. Discuss the results as a class.
As a class, identify the states with the highest and lowest population densities. Discuss possible reasons a state might have a high population density, such as:

  • a large total population
  • a small land area
  • a fairly large population, but a significantly smaller land area

Ask: What is the ranking of our state with the current data?

Informal Assessment

Make informal observations as students calculate the density populations for the states. You can also assess students’ understandings of population density by asking: What does the population density of a country or state tell you?

Extending the Learning

Encourage students to use this same technique to calculate the population density for cities within their own state or for particular countries of interest.

Connections to National Standards, Principles, and Practices

National Council for Social Studies Curriculum Standards

  • Theme 3: People, Places, and Environments

National Geography Standards

  • Standard 9: The characteristics, distribution, and migration of human populations on Earth's surface

Adapted from National Geographic Xpeditions lesson “A Look at the Population Density of the United States”

Media Credits

The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.

Nancee Hunter
Christina Riska Simmons
Expert Reviewer
Elizabeth Chacko, Associate Professor and Chair, Department of Geography, The George Washington University, The George Washington University

Fred Walk from Normal Community High School in Normal, Illinois, contributed classroom ideas for this activity.

Last Updated

January 22, 2024

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