Climate Change: An Elective for the "Natural World" Requirement

Julie Masura
University of Washington Tacoma


Climate Change is a quarter-long course offered to both science majors and non-majors as a general university requirement elective. The course uses classroom activities to explore evidence of climate change and affords students opportunities to apply the material they are learning to the effects of climate change on a chosen region.

Course Size:

Institution Type:
Public four-year institution, primarily undergraduate

Course Context:

The Division of Sciences and Mathematics at the University of Washington Tacoma offers a number of general university courses that cover the Natural World course-requirement for all students graduating with a liberal arts degree. Climate Change is an upper-division course, which both science majors and non-majors can choose as an elective, thus no prerequisites are required. Students who take the course range from those who understand the climate dilemma to those who are emotionally skeptical of the idea of a global crisis. The challenge for this course is to cover essential content while honoring both the scientific and social aspects of climate change. I find that early identification of each student's talent and contribution is key to being able to engage all students in the class.

Course Content:

In this course, I provide a general scientific background to climate change. I emphasize current global warming using examples of climate change from the geological record. We then consider the impact of global warming together with policies and practices that address issues of global warming.

Course Goals:

My goals for this course include using scientific concepts to explain climate change. We begin with introducing systems science and how each system is interrelated. The idea of cycles is used to connect students with feedback, both positive and negative. Next, the current climate is used to interpret past climate change. Students learn how climate is defined and use observations from the present to learn about climate change in the past. The science is then connected with policy-making regarding to global warming. Students learn to make policy statements based on scientific evidence based on current changes to convince all of climate adjustments, i.e. rapid loss of mountain glaciers, increased wildfires, etc. Students look at models and discuss what errors are and how models are still valid tools for forecasting global climate change. Finally, as a group, we look at the role of social responsibility and governance to address global climate change. We explore examples of successes and failures to confront global warming. This part of the course can be a bit tricky as some students revert to their original views, while others are open to change. We examine trends among both conservative climate-skeptics and concerned climate-solutions activists.

Course Features:

For each unit, I expect that the students work on learning the general material outside of class. Students will read a number of assigned readings and take an online quiz to ensure the material was read. Once posted, I rarely go over these, unless students have questions or concerns about the content. Students view on online lecture recorded in the Panapto video platform that covers the reading material and connects it to the activities to be completed in class. In class, students complete a number of practical exercises. These can include looking at a table of statistical data or a map and then reflecting on what each is demonstrating. Sometimes, I will do a low-tech demonstration like creating a microcosm and measure changes in pH, temperature, etc. Those available at the beginning of the unit, I post a discussion question that connects the reading, activities, and their personal interpretation of what was studied. The question could be, "With the recent changes in emission standards for vehicles, how does this change potentially affect the global crisis of ocean acidification?" Students are encouraged to use their opinions, bring in additional references, or riff from what was explored in class.

I assign a book review on a book on climate change that would be read by the general public. The purpose of this assignment is NOT to do a book report, but to focus on the content and credibility of the climate-change material in the book. I used to have the class look at just one book, but reading 50 of the same report was maddening. I now have the students post their book choice and I don't allow "repeats" (I let a couple go by, if necessary).

Our university has a meteorological station on one of our academic buildings. We look at live-streamed data for a number of weeks, followed by seasonal data from NOAA, and finally geologic evidence to look at how location, season, and other factors affect weather and climate changes. The simple concept of temperature lag (warmer times of day happen after the noon hour) is a great way enable students to understand feedback and how change is gradual.

Students are evaluated for their participation in class. Because of the number of students, I typically have groups work together in class. In order to ensure all are working on the activity, I note the involvement of all. I have a Likert scale that I use to assign points.

If a class session or two are missed or a student doesn't perform really well on an assignment, I allow students to make up some points by doing extra-credit activities. These could include listening to evening lectures/podcasts, reading, or participating in environmental science activities. This can sometimes bring to my attention activities I wasn't aware of due to the barrage of emails I get. I typically use announcements to share these learning opportunities with the whole class.


I quiz students on their reading assignments to ensure they are prepared for the classroom work. Quizzes are open-book and open-note.

I give students credit for participating in class activities which address the current topic. Activities build on one another during the quarter's progression.

I have students complete a book review on a pop-culture book on climate change in order to review the validity of the material delivered, as well as to reflect personally on their support or non-support of the book's content.

I give students a midterm and final exam in the classroom to demonstrate understanding of the material covered in the course.

I ask students to complete assignments that explore data-supported ideas using local data.

I assign students to a group in which they take ideas and data practices learned in class, and analyze either a region or country to determine whether and how climate change is effecting that area.


Syllabus for Climate Change: Understanding Our Changing World (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 31kB Aug20 17)

References and Notes:

Office of the Washington State Climatologist.

Ruddiman, W.F. 2014. Earth's Climate: Past and Future. 3rd Ed. New York: W.H. Freeman. 445 p.

Stanford School of Earth, Energy, and Environmental Sciences, N.D., Climate Change Education Project,

Washington State Department of Ecology. 2012. Blue Ribbon Panel on Ocean Acidification.

Western Regional Climate Center.