Introducing students to the complexities of the atmosphere and climate system

Cindy Shellito, University of Northern Colorado

As a meteorologist and paleoclimate modeler, nearly every course I have taught in the past five years has required students to delve into the complexities of the atmosphere and climate system, and consider both short and long-term temporal changes and feedbacks between system components. In introductory meteorology courses, I introduce students to the 3-dimensional fluid nature of the atmosphere; in Climatology and Paleoclimatology courses, I introduce students to the complex interactions between and among the Earth system that affect global climate on varied temporal and spatial scales; in Mesoscale Meteorology, a senior-level course, we focus on the complex dynamics of 'mesoscale' atmospheric phenomena such as low-level jets, thunderstorms and tornadoes. I have taught no class the same twice, as I find that each year I have a better grasp of the extent to which students have difficulty understanding concepts in my courses.

The primary challenges of teaching students about complex topics in meteorology and climate system dynamics are generally similar between introductory and more advanced courses. I see the following as the primary challenges:

  • Overcoming simplified preconceptions. Students often enter my courses with their own ideas about how the atmosphere and climate system work. (For examples: students think that the ozone hole is causing global warming, or that wind causes weather). Additionally, if they are presented with new material too quickly, they will often seem to oversimplify new concepts as a way of trying to remember them.
  • Promoting understanding of feedbacks. Students are often looking for very clear connections – they want to be able to state very explicit outcomes. Feedbacks muddy the process and throw into question their preconceptions about the linear nature of cause-effect relationships.
  • Conveying the 4-dimentional nature of climate system interactions or of atmospheric motion. Truly understanding the nature of the atmosphere requires developing mental images of 3-dimensional structures in the atmosphere and then being able to move these structures in time. This is a challenging task that requires a significant amount of spatial ability when using something concrete (evolving landforms, for example), but it requires an added amount of imagination when trying to build these structures out of thin air!

Among the strategies I've adopted in my courses and scholarly pursuits to meet the challenges outlined above:

  • Coach students in how to learn material on complex topics. Often students try to learn lots of new material by making index flash cards for memorizing definitions. Students who do this, often don't see the connections between concepts. Providing students with some instruction in how to use concept maps to supplement their studying encourages them to consider how various concepts are linked together. I also walk them through my own cognitive process in drawing, reading, and interpreting weather maps or maps of climate data. I start with the simplest possible map, then have them draw and interpret maps of increasing complexity. Next we add maps or visualizations that depict the atmosphere in motion.
  • Assess students' preconceptions. What ideas do they have when they walk into my classroom? What ideas do I need to build on? In my introductory courses, I require my students to complete a short questionnaire during the first week of the semester asking them about their ideas concerning the structure of the atmosphere and climate change.
  • Break complex systems down into components and focus on one component or process at a time. For example, in studying the climate system, we may focus on the atmosphere first, and then the ocean. After discussing the individual components, it's critical to link them together. In discussing the climate system, I do this by incorporating a discussion of the hydrologic and carbon cycles.
  • Use current research data, online, or from journal articles, to make activities more relevant.
  • Incorporate maps, models or simulations and visualizations. I find that numerical models of varying complexity can be useful tools for promoting understanding particularly of global-scale processes and feedbacks. I use a range of numerical models, beginning from a very simple energy-balance model, and progressing to more complex models in advanced courses. Or, I will provide exercises where students need to interpret/extrapolate data presented in visualizations. I find, however, that introducing students to models or model output is a very tricky thing. Not all students (particularly at the introductory level) are comfortable looking at maps and visualizations. It's important to give them sufficient background to understand how to read and interpret maps or visualizations. Introducing too much too soon – particularly animated visualizations – can be overwhelming.