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Earth’s Environmental Systems at Columbia & Barnard

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Stephanie Pfirman Barnard College
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This three-semester sequence enables students to explore the Earth System via large data sets. Critical processes governing the dynamics of the Atmosphere, Ocean, Solid Earth and Life systems are taught in an integrated way. Students gain an understanding of the way the Earth functions and how to find answers to their own questions.
GSA Poster (PowerPoint 2.2MB Oct31 03)

Learning Goals


Higher Order Thinking Skills:

Drawing conclusions from data
Interpretation and inference
How to use data in problem solving

Other Skills:

How to access data
Data analysis including use of Excel
Assembly of data into meaningful maps and figures that can be used to make a scientific argument or explain a scientific point
Managing arrays of data
Scientific writing


Instructional Level:

Undergraduate environmental majors, also useful for graduate students

Skills Needed:

High school algebra, physics, chemistry, helpful to have some knowledge of Excel (tutorial provided)

Role of Activity in a Course:

3 separate courses that use the same format: lecture with on line lecture notes, lab served on the web and small group activities and minilectures. Data sets are used as part of homework problem solving exercises, as laboratory exercises, small group activities, and in class demonstrations.

Data, Tools and Logistics

Required Tools:

The Data Viewer, it is largely self explanatory, but there is an online tutorial. You also need reliable access to the internet and Excel as well as some introduction in order to understand the point of the exercises

Logistical Challenges:

Questions about features that students observe in the data, difficulty in writing up lab in scientific format at the outset


Evaluation Goals:

Can the students use data without help to solve problems related to the content of the course?
Are students learning to transfer understanding from one regime to another, for example from dynamics of the atmosphere to dynamics of the ocean?

Evaluation Techniques:

Early assessment showed that students did gain an integrated understanding of earth system functioning.


The Earth System website provides a challenging learning environment for college students interested in learning how the Earth system works. It supports three courses offered by the Departments of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University and Barnard College. The curriculum was developed in 1995 and has been team taught since then, primarily to environmental science and biology majors. Support was provided by the National Science Foundation and Columbia University. The goals of the courses are to: engage students in learning about the Earth System, involve students in exploring the environment, help students learn to draw conclusions from data, and integrate research and education.
Our assessment indicates that environmental majors value the Earth System courses: year after year, senior majors rank Climate at the top of all classes taken during their undergraduate career. Students learn how to access and analyze data, they learn to draw conclusions from data, and they learn the role of components of the system in overall system functioning. However, students spend too much time on the computer - we plan to add more complementary hands-on activities in the future, and students seem to undervalue the small group problem solving.

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