Global Climate Change

Sarah Fortner,
Wittenberg University


Consequences of global climate change already include: increased drought, heat waves, flood intensity, glacial retreat, and sea level rise. Solutions are needed to reduce human impact on our climate system and to respond to climate change impacts across sectors vital to humanity (food, water, health). This course examines climate change at global and local scales. Students explore climate challenges faced by local experts and create climate solutions modules or advocacy resources for a public event. They reflect on implications for future problem solving.

Course Size:

Course Format:
Lecture (3x1 hour a week); interactive, features small group work

Institution Type:
Public four-year institution, primarily undergraduate

Course Context:

This is an introductory course with no pre-requisites. It serves as an option for the environmental studies minor. Most (~70%) of the students are non-science majors, with ~25% having interest in education. This course has been filled at full capacity since it launched.

Course Content:

This course has students analyze important trends in our climate system through time and space. Through these investigations, they explore how natural (i.e. solar) and human-derived forcing agents drive our climate system. The course is designed to build understanding for why mitigation and adaptation are needed to face present and future challenges. Climate literacy and proactive decision-making are essential to meeting these challenges. To gain an understanding of how climate change challenges intersect with decision-making, students meet with experts in housing, energy, waste, and land management. They then share how the experts' job/organization faces or addresses climate change impacts. Students explore data relevant to expert perspectives and research solutions important to these sectors. They then create advocacy materials or climate literacy modules to communicate local solutions to the general public. One semester, they worked with a climate lobbyist and in other semesters they have worked with experts from the Center of Science and Industry (COSI). Experts served as consultants for event resource creation. Literacy modules and advocacy resources were reviewed prior to the event. Throughout the course, students reflect on lessons learned from experts, and their role in climate solutions.

Course Goals:

  • Students will analyze figures to understand natural and human-influenced drivers of our climate system and implications
  • Students will be able to assess the credibility of scientific information
  • Students will communicate locally-relevant climate change solutions to a non-science audience
  • Students will make informed & responsible decisions with regard to our climate system

Course Features:

Through in-class exploration of climate trends and conversations with local experts whose work includes climate/energy decision making, students develop a locally-relevant understanding of climate change. They also intentionally explore solutions. The course final project is a public education or advocacy event. These have been highly successful because modules are built in collaboration with science museum or advocacy experts and are reviewed before presentation. Students also create a complementary fact sheet that must revisit analyses important to understanding climate change or solutions. During the event, students interact with an audience of younger kids and parents through presenting climate solutions modules that address climate challenges faced at local/regional level.

Course Philosophy:

This course was developed around the learning goals developed for Climate Literacy: The Essential Principles of Climate Science, 2009, American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) & the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Proactive approaches were incorporated as a best practice of sustainability education: See: Sustainability Improves Student Learning, What do we mean by sustainability issues?, and InTeGrate: Interdisciplinary Teaching for a Sustainable World. All courses I teach, consider grand challenges at local scales, where action is possible.


The course is assessed through analytical & terminology assignments that have students explore and interpret climate trends globally and locally, quizzes to evaluate student analysis of key trends, a midterm presentation project focused on exploring climate challenges & solutions and calling peers to action, and in-class reflection or pre-class reading activities that support reflection on content presented by local experts on local implications of climate change and exploring its relevance to personal decision making. The final project includes climate solutions modules, which are presented to the public along with a supporting fact sheet (e.g. figures/trend analysis needed to understand the challenge and solution presented in the module). In addition, pre- and post-course assessments include key literacy concepts and questions about attitudinal shifts (local relevance of climate change, relevance of climate change to careers, and desire to act personally). In both literacy and attitudinal realms, students have made significant gains from pre to post course.


Syllabus, Global Climate Change (ESCI 100) (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 754kB Mar3 16)

Teaching Materials:

Climate Literacy Module & Supporting Fact Sheet Assignment (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 30kB Mar3 16)

The above is the version used for a museum partnership. For an advocacy event, I revised the rubric to have students consider how the policy issue or campus solution they are advocating for is relevant to the audience attending the event. This might include incorporating locally-relevant impacts of a policy change into template letters to representatives, or developing a reflection activity that provides perspectives on marginalized groups affected by policy. The fact sheet assignment is similarly revised. Students must describe the need for a policy shift and also include a vision for the future if their advocacy is successful (i.e. what does it mean for Ohio if we have a carbon tax?). Both the need and vision components require supporting evidence. Revisions incorporate ideas from the AAC&U Civic Engagement VALUE Rubric.

References and Notes:

Teaching & partnering notes:

This course has been improved through iteration. Early versions included outreach literacy modules, but they did not have a local solutions focus. Adding a local focus improved attitudinal shifts from pre & post course, especially relevance to careers. The latest iteration moved to a new emphasis on advocacy. In addition, the development of event materials has always involved a student and expert peer review before public presentation, which is important when presenting in visible forums. Local experts who serve agencies with a public education mission are a good choice for this activity because they like to engage with diverse audiences.

References and Resources: