Earth System and Climate

Anna B. Breuninger

University of Alaska Anchorage
University with graduate programs, primarily masters programs


An introduction to global climate change with an Earth Systems approach. The focus will be current climate change put into the context of climate change at a geologic time scale.

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Course Context:

This is an introductory course in the department of Geological Sciences intended primarily for non-majors (but also to recruit majors). The course can be used as a science General Education Requirement for the College of Arts and Sciences. The course has no lab or pre-requisites.

Course Goals:

Goal 1 Students should be able to design and work with global models that enable them to interpret specific cycles affecting global change

Goal 2: Students should be able to evaluate current global climate change at different temporal and spatial scales.

Goal 3: Students should be able to evaluate and critique news articles presenting new (and sometime conflicting) data, interpretations or models within the framework of current global change science.

Goal 4: Students should be able to evaluate the scientific validity of conflicting data and hypotheses in global change science.

How course activities and course structure help students achieve these goals:

The course is structured into four parts. The first part focuses on achieving Goal 1. The second part focuses on achieving Goal 2 while reinforcing Goal 1 and so forth in an attempt to encourage increasingly sophisticated and higher order thinking. Techniques used to give practice in achieving the goals are the use of concept maps and concept diagrams, short written or qualitative assignments (low-stakes or no stakes). The class will be split into 4-5 cohorts for online discussions and debates. The discussions and debates begin with scientific hypothesis and model development and progress to more complex and more "charged" topics involving current news and data and political/ethical voices addressing global change issues. Several case studies will relate directly to Alaskan and Arctic global change. Summative assessment techniques include the debates, several exams and a final portfolio of written and calculated work.

Skills Goals

Skill 1: Students should be able to deconstruct hypotheses presenting different viewpoints to the scientific basis of the topic.

Skill 2: Students should know how to find good quality data and analyses to help in number 3 (recognize good and bad sources, know where the sources are)

Skill 3: Students will be able to critically assess data sets and popular articles for bias, point of view, and data quality and error analysis in written and graphic form.

How course activities and course structure help students achieve these goals:

Students will practice deconstructing hypotheses and interpreting scientific material by using concept sketches and maps to determine important relationships in the climate system and how chances result in positive and negative feedback and forcing of the climate system. Writing assignments, discussions and debates give students practice in writing skills, graphing data and interpreting it, finding auxiliary and good quality data (no bias etc...) and information and communicating their hypotheses. Students will read and discuss popular articles in order to become critical thinkers.

Attitudinal Goals

Alleviate fear of science.
Develop confidence in critiquing, evaluating and assessing popular news about global change.
Develop a grounded understanding in global change.
Be able to encounter difficult discussions and controversies calmly and confidently with an open mind.

How course activities and course structure help students achieve these goals:

Practice in debates and discussions, breadth of reading and course content, deeper knowledge of science, individual interactions with cohort group as well as with me will achieve the attitudinal goals. Also compiling a final portfolio and reflecting on the course content and processes will address attitudinal goals.


Rubrics will be used for written and discussion assignments. Exams will be data analysis, concept maps and concept sketches, as well as discussion questions.

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