Evidence for Climate Change and Empowering Students to Action

Kaatje Kraft, Whatcom Community College
Author Profile


This activity engages students in looking at the evidence for climate change and provides opportunities for them to then consider what they can do in their own lives to make a change in their carbon footprint.

Used this activity? Share your experiences and modifications

Learning Goals

Big Idea:

Students should be able to recognize that there are natural and human forces driving climate change, and the bigger cause of recent climate change is due to human activity. In addition, students can reflect on what they can do to make a difference in their own personal life practices.

Learning Goals:
  • Students should be able to describe what the natural cycle of climate change is.
  • Students should be able to explain the relationship between greenhouse gases and global temperature
  • Students should be able to differentiate between individual storm/weather events and bigger system climatic changes and describe how climate change is related to each.
  • Students should be able to determine their own carbon footprint and compare and contrast different websites and the value of the number provided.
  • Students should reflect on changes they can make in their own lives to reduce their carbon footprint.

Context for Use

This lesson is used in an introductory geology class, but could easily be used in other classes where climate change is taught. This is typically taught in a class of 24 but can easily be scaled up to larger numbers in a number of different ways. I find this takes about 2-3 hours to complete.

Description and Teaching Materials

Pre-teaching activity: Students take a survey, do a pre-class reading and reflect on their learning

Teaching Activity:

  • When students come into class, they are asked to ask any question they have about climate change/global warming. They put their question on a piece of paper, without their names and hand it in.
  • Students are then provided a choice of four different groups in which to assemble into working groups around the International Panel on Climate Change Frequently Asked Questions (IPCC FAQ's) document (https://web.archive.org/web/20181103183733/https://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar4/wg1/ar4-wg1-faqs.pdf)
    • General Overview (topics 1.1, 1.2, 1.3)
    • Extreme Events (topics 3.3, 9.1, 10.1, 10.2)
    • General Processes (topics 3.1, 3.2, 4.1, 5.1)
    • Human vs. Natural (topics 2.1, 6.1, 6.2, 7.1, 9.2)
  • Each student in the working groups has their own FAQ to analyze and take notes on, and then as a group, they synthesize their information onto a class "white board". Students then share out their general findings to the class. If there is more than one topic working group, I ask the 2nd group to add/enhance what the first group presented.
  • I then distribute the questions students handed out at the beginning of class (that I have sorted while students are working in their groups based on themes that pertain to the different topics—some are more obvious than others, some don't fit at all, and I take those on). Students are then asked to figure out how to answer their own classmates' questions.
  • I then provide visuals and overview of some of the key ideas in a powerpoint (PowerPoint 8.7MB Mar31 16) to summarize the main ideas. This includes showing two clips/segments from Earth the Operator's Manual: http://earththeoperatorsmanual.com/main-video/earth-the-operators-manual ("formation of fossil fuels" and "it's us")
  • Lastly, I ask students to reflect (in writing) on their initial survey results, do they think their rating would change, why or why not?

Homework Assignment follow up:
  • Students are then asked to find two different websites that allow them to calculate their own carbon foot print and answer the following questions:
    • What are the two measures of your carbon footprint? From where did you obtain these values?
    • If they are different, why do you think that is?
    • Which do you think is more accurate and why? (or if the same, how accurate in general do you think these calculators are and why?)
    • What are ways to reduce your carbon footprint? Do you think this is reasonable?
    • If there is one thing you could change in behavior among your spheres of influence (peers and family), which one thing do you think would have the greatest impact on reducing a larger carbon footprint?
    • How does your footprint compare to the average American? To the rest of the world? Why do you think that is?
    • Any other thoughts or reflections?

Teaching Notes and Tips

  • The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is an international organization that seeks to provide information written by scientists for the general public to better understand how to make informed policy decisions, without making policy-recommendations in their work. The Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ's) are written by experts in climate research and go through multiple iterations of review prior to being available for the general public. They are well written and very digestible for a non-expert. For more detail on the IPCC and other important publications, visit their website: http://www.ipcc.ch/
  • The reading reflection assignment is based on work done by Karl Wirth, described in more detail here: http://serc.carleton.edu/NAGTWorkshops/metacognition/activities/27560.html
  • Before I begin class, I try to make it very clear that because this is a science class, we're not talking about the politics of climate change, we're just looking at the evidence around what it says. I emphasize that I'm not trying to force someone to change their ideas, I just want them to understand the science. While that doesn't guarantee students will hear it, I've found it helps students to have language to tie their reflections to later if they still don't feel comfortable with confronting their beliefs.
  • An alternate presentation format would be for groups to re-configure (in a jigsaw style manner) that allows smaller groups to share out their findings. The challenge is that since the FAQ's are not the same number within a group, it doesn't make for automatically re-grouped numbers, but you could have teams of some groups present to other smaller groups.
  • I use a notebook system that helps record and keep all of their notes/activities in one place (described here: https://serc.carleton.edu/sage2yc/self_regulated/kraft3.html)


  1. "Ticket in" of the reading rubric and survey provides context for where they are currently thinking, and also requires them to start to formulate a description of the carbon cycle and how greenhouse gases play a role in that process.
  2. Presentations help to determine how well they understand their own content
  3. Answer one another's questions requires them to dig deeper into their own understanding of their assigned topic.
  4. During ppt presentation there is a think-pair-share checking in on understanding of greenhouse effect "applying the concept of the greenhouse effect, why does your car get hot in the summer?")
  5. A "ticket out" of a reflection on what their own thoughts are on climate change
  6. Homework assignment assesses their understanding of their own actions in relations to the larger picture.
  7. Quiz questions have included:
  • What is one of the strongest pieces of evidence that the additional CO2 in the atmosphere is from human activity and not natural sources?
    • Because the majority of Carbon is C-12 (old dead things)
    • Because the majority of Carbon is C-13 (carbon cycle output)
    • Because the majority of Carbon is C-14 (recent dead things)
    • Because it's a blend of C-12, C-13 and C-14
  • Describe the difference between climate and weather and why that's an important distinction when talking about climate change.

References and Resources