Multidimensional Teaching About Climate Change: A Complexity Perspective

Catherine Gautier, UCSB

I have been teaching about The Earth as complex system for almost 20 years now and over time explored various ways of teaching it. My learner-centered approach builds upon constructivist theory principles and fosters teaching practices that recognize the active roles students must play in their learning. Below is a short summary of my experiences adapted in part, from an editorial paper I wrote about Earth System Science Education a few years ago (Gautier, 2006).

Several characteristics encapsulate how learning is conceptualized from this learner-centered perspective. They include students' involvement in the material to be learned, students' acting on the information at a deep level, students' relating the new material to what they already know (proximal learning), students' continually checking and updating their understandings based on new experiences, and students' becoming autonomous and long-life learners aware of the learning process. The nature of the knowledge and research environment that characterizes Earth system science naturally lends itself to the facilitation of student construction of knowledge according to those characteristics. By providing an active learning experience to students, we effectively offer them both opportunity and motivation to understand this complex area of scientific inquiry and to experience deep, enduring and enjoyable learning.

Over time I have developed a number of courses that aim to achieve this learner-centered instruction. My way to address the human sides of Earth System Science is through a Mock Environmental Summit course, which I offer nearly every summer. This course uses role-playing, argumentation and discussion to heighten epistemological awareness and motivation and thereby facilitate conceptual change. My graduate students and I have documented the significant learning achieved through this approach (Gautier and Rebich, 2005 and Rebich and Gautier, 2005) by developing new evaluation tools based on the analysis of concept maps to evaluate the conceptual learning that occurs (Rebich, 2006, Master's Thesis). One our main findings had to do with misconceptions and their evolution throughout the learning process (Gautier et al., 2007) when provoking cognitive conflict for the student.

Through teaching courses that address either the science of climate change or the policy associated with climate change, I have observed my students clearly and effectively constructing their knowledge by gathering and synthesizing information from lectures, books, articles, and from internet research. Two main challenges arose: 1) to guide students through integration of this complex and extensive information and, 2) to coach students through the assessment of information quality when obtained from the internet. The interdisciplinarity of ESS compounds the difficulties of the integration as it often requires input from many different fields. The assessment of information quality represents a tough challenge and made even more difficult recently with available sources presenting "skeptical" views of the science. I address it in a variety of ways loosely following a cognitive apprenticeship approach that involves both providing general guidelines (e.g., try to assess the author's reputation, look for the presence and quality of the references), and analyzing in class with students some material that can be challenging for them. For instance, in one of my freshman classes (Living with Global Warming) after a distraught student came to me asking me to help her reconcile what she had learned in class with what was presented in a newly released Youtube movie "The Great Global Warming Swindle", we spent the last course lecture critically analyzing the validity of the arguments presented in parts of that movie and discussing how the authors artfully present their material and how that can be convincing to a student (or a broader audience for that matter) whose knowledge is fresh and incomplete.

As integration of information and making connections are central to looking at the issues from a system's perspective, I always ensure that they are performed within the context of critical thinking about contemporary issues and that my students investigate issues from different perspectives (political, geopolitical or intergenerational views) to broaden their understanding. For instance in my Oil and Water class, I help students develop their knowledge base using a book I especially wrote to support this course (Oil, water and Climate: An Introduction , 2008, Cambridge University Press). I emphasize the development of critical thinking abilities regarding the interconnectedness of the issues through in-class and homework activities. This is especially valuable as it helps students develop a knowledge framework that they can later use as a basis for evaluating scientific evidence for decision-making.

Inquiry-based problem solving approaches are central to my teaching as they facilitate students' involvement in their learning. My students use models to address quantitative questions such as what is the influence of greenhouse gases or aerosols on climate or perform internet research to investigate what potential greenhouse emission limitation can be proposed for a developing country in the context of an after Kyoto Protocol. Whether studies of the sensitivity of climate to various external forcing or what if scenarios, targeted inquiries guide my students' learning.

All this is achieved through a collaborative, cooperative and supportive learning environment, where I learn with my students. My teaching is designed to ensure that students understand and extend themselves because it is at these edges that the learning takes place. For example, in my Earth System Science class I use the cognitive apprenticeship method to promote conceptual learning in climate science by encouraging student inquiry, which literature shows to be conducive to learning a multi-faceted topic. In this course students conduct their own research using an up-to-date user-friendly climate (1-D radiative transfer) model. They perform their own experiments around five topics addressed in this class: Earth Radiation Budget and Clouds, Greenhouse Effect, Ozone, Aerosols and Surface Processes. Assigned readings serve as the basis for formulating initial individual questions, while lectures and discussions help to define and refine group research questions and associated projects whose results are then presented in class. Our analysis of students' questions shows improvement in students' ability to formulate questions and that conceptual learning has taken place (Gautier and Solomon, 2006).

In the smaller classes, the evaluation of my students' learning takes place continuously as the learning occurs and is done in partial collaboration with them using a variety of instruments (e.g., discussions, presentations, short web submissions). Under this evaluation paradigm, there is no longer a clear distinction between teaching and assessment. They have become intertwined with the role of assessment ending up being that of promoting and diagnosing learning and no longer limited to grading. In larger classes, multiple assignments are designed to address a variety of learning styles (e.g., verbal, visual) and evaluation is more grade oriented because feedback is harder to give. The continuous evaluation forces me to exercise flexibility and adjust my teaching to the pace at which the overall class learning proceeds. What is covered in class varies each time depending on the make up of the class. To me, this is an acceptable solution as, in a broad and rapidly evolving field as ESS, it is impossible for students to learn everything about it in a classroom setting. So, I believe that instruction must provide students with the tools and motivation to study by themselves and become life-long learners who can actively construct their own knowledge during and after class and continue learning long after their schooling has ended.

Two other aspects permeate all my classes: the development of high-level scientific questions and the ability to use graphics, in terms of both their interpretation and their use in students' own work to support their arguments. To prepare for every classes, students are expected to generate a high-level question around their reading and analyze one graphic relating to the lecture to come. Although in large classes I do not have time to provide students feedback on their pre-class submissions these important aspects of science are discussed and reinforced in lectures.

More recently I have become even more interested by teaching about complexity and emergence as they pertain to climate change in particular. I offered a graduate seminar entitled Emergence and Complexity a couple years ago as an introduction to these issues and have over the last years integrated more and more explicitly the ingredients of complexity into my courses.


Gautier C. , 2006: A personal Experience of Designing Earth System Science Instruction based on Learner-Centered Environment Paradigm, Editorial in the Journal of Geoscience Education, May, 2006.

Gautier C., K. Deutsch and S. Rebich, 2006: Misconceptions about the greenhouse effect, Journal of Geoscience Education, v. 54, n. 3, p. 386-399.

Gautier C. and R. Solomon, 2005: A Preliminary Study of Students' Asking Quantitative Scientific Questions for Inquiry-Based Climate Model Experiments, J. Geosc. Ed., v. 53, n. 4, p. 432-443.

Rebich S. and C. Gautier, 2005: Concept Mapping to Reveal Prior Knowledge and Conceptual Change in a Mock Summit Course on Global Climate Change, J. Geosc. Ed., v. 53, n. 4, p. 444-457.

Gautier C. and S. Rebich, 2005: The Use of a Mock Summit to Support Learning about Global Climate Change, J. Geosc. Ed., v. 53, n. 1, p. 5-15.

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