The Earth's Record of Climate

Kevin Theissen
University of St. Thomas (MN)


In this course students explore the Earth's climate system and the climatic changes that have occurred during the history of the planet. Students get a hands-on introduction to the collection, analysis,and interpretation of climate data in laboratory sessions and in-class activities.

Course Size:

Course Format:
Students enroll in one course that includes both lecture and lab. The lecture and the lab are both taught by the professor.

Course Context:

This is one of several focused-topic introductory courses offered by our department. The course has no prerequisites and it satisfies the pre-requisite for all intermediate level courses for a geology major. The majority of students enrolling are non-science majors. The course has a required weekly two-hour lab meeting and has been offered in most academic years since Fall, 2003. A new advanced section of the course for geology majors has been offered once recently, and will be a biannual offering going forward.

Course Goals:

By the end of this course, students should be able to:
  1. Define key terms, identify and classify important Earth features, and explain important concepts and theories about Earth's climate.
  2. Access data from sources such as the internet, analyze these data sets, make interpretations, and make comparisons between different data sets.
  3. Use different types of geological evidence (including sediment and rock types, fossils, and geochemical data) to make an interpretation of the geological and climate-related history of a given region.
  4. Evaluate climate-related arguments and information in scientific articles and the mainstream media.


Goals 2 and 3: Labs and in-class activities have students gather and work with data from accredited climate and paleoclimate data sources. Several activities require students to access, analyze, and interpret data (such and marine and ice core d18O). This provides students with an introduction to the way earth scientists make interpretations with the various archives available to them. Students often work together in lab and in-class activities. A final lab synthesis project students to work in pairs and use the skills they have developed to interpret the paleoclimate history of a realistic (but fictional) region using various types of information.

Goal 4: Throughout the course students are assigned short articles on climate change from the technical literature, from less technical scientific literature (such as Scientific American), and from the mainstream news media. Students are required to give written responses that explore the key ideas in the articles and their thoughts about the content. These readings include material by well-known climate contrarians. We often discuss the readings as a larger group in class. Students participate in a Greenhouse gas emissions reduction role-play exercise in which they must consider a variety of arguments from various interest groups.


Course syllabus for Earth's Record of Climate (Acrobat (PDF) 513kB Jun11 14)

Teaching Materials:

References and Notes:

Theissen, K. (2008). The Earth's Record of Climate: A Focused-topic Introductory Course. Journal of Geoscience Education, v. 56, n. 4, p. 342-353. (Full Text available courtesy of NAGT)