Teach the Earth > Climate Change > Climate Models Workshop 2010 > Summary of Tuesday Discussion

Common Questions about Teaching with Climate Models - A summary of Tuesday's discussion

Below is a summary of the Tuesday group discussion: Opportunity for reflection: What have you learned? What do we still need to work on, as a group, in developing or utilizing materials to promote understanding of models and climate change?

Q: How does one design a course focused on modeling without spending the entire semester focusing on background material? At what point or how much experience must students have to get beyond seeing a model as a black box?
  • Trying to get students to understand the process of science might help students to understand the nature of science and the importance of experimentation.
  • Introduce modeling on a simple level first (e.g. energy balance model is a simple climate model). Then scaffold learning to get them to apply concepts learned from the basic model to more complex models. Even some long-time users of GCM modeling know all the inner workings of the model.
  • Speaking from experience with grad students and professionals working with a variety of science backgrounds/levels of scientific knowledge, the use of participatory conceptual modeling processes may be helpful. In this case, if you're teaching a class, you can provide students with an overview of systems thinking (e.g. what is a system?) then start with a simple energy balance/budget model. Get students to think about the system and have them work together to develop a simple concept map of the energy balance model – have them draw out how the basic components fit together on the blackboard. Then, scaffold this learning and apply it to a global level or scale.
  • Possibility of using Excel to have students plug in simple equations. Tie these together to show how models function. This doesn't need to be a climate model, it could start as a more real-world example such as calculating the efficiency of walking to class or driving to class, parking, and walking the remainder of the way; then this idea could be related to how climate models work. An example of a climate model that uses this approach is the Modeling Early Earth Climate with GEEBITT activity.
  • L.F. Richardson's idea of a "Forecast Factory" could also be useful to demonstrate how models are used to predict weather. How Do We Predict Weather and Climate? , from the University of Reading Meteorolgy Department and Walker Institute for Climate Research, is an activity based on the Richardson forecast factory that asks students to imagine themselves as "human computers" in a forecast factory. The aim of the activity was to introduce students to the ways in which numerical weather forecasts are made using simple equations. Teacher's notes and handouts are provided.

Q. How do we teach about climate projections in class? How do we go beyond using current climate data in class to teach students about climate projections taking into account the affective domain and prior conceptions (e.g. not losing interest because they "don't believe in climate change" or, the other end of the spectrum, they see future climate change as "the end of the world").
  • Have them read the IPCC summary of policy makers - this is written in a language that most students can understand.
  • It's interesting that climate models can recreate internal variability in the atmosphere (e.g. El Nino and La Nina events) using current inputs. The fact that they are creating these events may strengthen the argument that they are pretty accurate and credible.

Q. How does one define scenarios vs. forecasts vs. projections?
  • Key difference is forecasts - model output is not a forecast.

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