Teach the Earth > Hurricanes-Climate Change Connection > Classroom Activities > Student Lead Discussions: Articles from the Literature and Final Writing Assignment

Student Lead Discussions: Articles from the Literature and Final Writing Assignment

Dave Dempsey
San Francisco State University
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This page first made public: Oct 21, 2008


This is a two-stage assignment. The first stage is a student-led discussion of a set of closely related articles selected by the instructors from the climate change literature. The second stage is an 8-12 page paper on that topic, based on those articles and supplemented with additional articles located by the student.

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These coordinated assignments are part of an upper-division course, "Planetary Climate Change", an integrated geosciences course on the science of climate change for Meteorology, Oceanography, and Geology majors and other science majors, including preservice 9th-12th grade teachers. It's a 4 semester-unit course that includes a 3-hour lab. We teach the course in two, 3-hour blocks; most of the instruction is inquiry-based or other student-centered method, with modest amounts of lecture as needed. A meteorologist and either an oceanographer or a geologist co-teach the course. For some of these students the course is a degree requirement, while for others it satisfies and elective requirement.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

The assignments come in the last third of the course. The first two-thirds of the course covers a number of basic concepts and subject-matter needed to begin to understand the Earth's climate system, including Earth/sun relations; energy and carbon budgets on several time scales; the greenhouse effect; basic patterns of atmospheric and oceanic motions and the resulting transport of energy by winds and ocean currents; the concept of feedback and a number of examples of feedback in the climate system; and so forth.

How the activity is situated in the course

We intend for the coupled assignments to build on the content- and concept-building work that precedes them in the course, first by showing students how the concepts and content are integrated and applied in individual articles from the literature, and then by asking students to synthesize what they've learned about a topic and the underlying science across multiple articles and course content.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

In broad terms, the goal of the student-led discussions of articles from the literature is to "become better acquainted with aspects of climate change through critical reading of the literature." We selected the topic of hurricanes and climate change (one of four or five topics that our students examine in this mode) because it helps address specific aspects of larger course objectives, including development of an understanding of:
The final writing assignment, which is based on the same set of assigned articles plus additional, related articles identified by the student, must address the following general aspects of the topic to the extent that the topic and the articles on them permit:
  1. initial observations/evidence;
  2. initial hypotheses posed to account for initial observations/evidence (including external forcings and feedbacks);
  3. subsequent observations/evidence that have confirmed or disproved earlier hypotheses;
  4. technology that made making observations/gathering evidence possible and led to breakthroughs in understanding;
  5. scientific controversies and how they played out historically or are currently playing out;
  6. current understanding and remaining uncertainties.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

For the student-led discussions, student discussion leaders need to read the assigned articles critically and identify the key points that the authors make; the issues and questions that they raise; how, and how well, they address questions that they raise; and what questions they raise but leave unanswered.

For the associated final writing assignment, students need to synthesize information about the topic coherently across multiple articles and course content to address the current and historical aspects of the science underlying the topic, as outlined in the final writing assignment.

Other skills goals for this activity

For the student-led discussions, students need to work together with one or two co-leaders to coordinate leadership of the discussion.

For the final writing assignment, students need to organize material well and write clearly and cogently.

Description of the activity/assignment

Assignment #1 Student-led discussion of articles from the literature

We assign one or two groups of two or three students to each of four or four or five topics related to climate change, and provide each group a set of related articles from the literature on their assigned topic. The group will lead a one-hour, in-class discussion on the topic, with up to a dozen students and one instructor in each discussion. In preparation for the discussion, the discussion co-leaders must collectively write a set of "Reading Questions" about each assigned article, which help readers focus on the key points made by the articles and can serve as points of discussion. The other students participating in the discussion must read the articles with the aid of these Reading Questions and annotate the portions of the articles that address the Reading Questions. We (instructors) evaluate the Reading Questions written by the co-leaders (they receive a shared grade for these), and we also check the annotated articles turned in by the other discussion participants to ensure that they prepared to participate in the discussion (they receive individual grades this). Discussion co-leaders each receive a grade for the quality of their discussion leadership.

The purpose of this assignment is in part to help students prepare for their final writing assignment by requiring that they read a set of articles closely enough to help other students discuss and understand the key points, and get feedback about their level of understanding, up to a month before the final paper on the topic is due. The immediate outcome that we expect from this assignment is a demonstration that students can read the assigned articles critically, identify and articulate the key points, and help engage other students in a discussion about the articles, including conceptually important or difficult aspects of them.

Assignment #2: Final writing assignment

For this assignment, which follows from the previous one, students are asked to:

  1. locate two or more significant additional articles that relate closely to the articles on which they based the discussion that they co-led; and
  2. write a 8-12 page (typed, double spaced) overview of the history and current state of our scientific understanding about the topic(s) covered by the set of discussion articles, based on the articles themselves plus relevant material presented in class or in assigned reading. In particular, wherever justified by the source material, students should try to include the following in the narrative:
The outcome should be a written demonstration of the student's ability to analyze and synthesize a set of articles from the literature and supporting materials provided in class to describe the history, current state, and unresolved aspects of our scientific understanding of an interdisciplinary aspect of climate change.

Determining whether students have met the goals

For the student-led discussions: (1) We evaluate the "Reading Questions" that each group of co-leaders must write to help the other student discussion participants read and understand the assigned articles; and (2) sit in on the discussions (to provide guidance and background as needed), and evaluate the quality of the discussion leadership provided by the co-leaders.

For the final writing assignment, we read and evaluate the papers written by each student, looking to see how well they incorporated the assigned articles, additional articles that they identified themselves, and course material, to execute the assignment. We also look for evidence that they incorporated any feedback they received from the discussion that they co-led earlier.

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Supporting references/URLs

In Fall 2007, we asked one group of three students to read the following articles from the literature on global warming and hurricanes, co-lead a discussion about them, and write a paper on them (plus several more, related articles that each student must identify):

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