Quantifying Greenhouse Gas Emissions at the County Level: A Collaborative Term Project to Enhance Understanding of Climate Modeling and Quantitative Reasoning

Robert J. Turner, Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences Program, University of Washington Bothell


The general assignment is for the students to work as a team to quantify and map the variability in greenhouse gas emissions for the counties in Washington State. To accomplish this, students work in pairs throughout the quarter, sharing their findings on Blackboard along the way. Each pair is assigned a specific parameter (for example, cattle emissions) and it is their task to: 1) determine how to calculate the carbon dioxide equivalent emissions for their parameter; 2) find the data to plug into their formula(s); 3) list the sources of their information; 4) generate maps comparing the emissions of their parameter in each WA county; and 5) assess the assumptions and sources of uncertainty in their calculations. Near the end of the quarter all students are challenged to evaluate the work of all student pairs and decide which student data sets to use in calculating total emissions for each county. Aside from having to critically evaluate the data available to them, the students also have to justify the choices they make in generating their total emissions per county and how they display the data on a map.

Used this activity? Share your experiences and modifications

Learning Goals

The Big Ideas of this activity include the following.

  • Human activities pollute the atmosphere in myriad ways and most people are unaware of how they contribute to this pollution.
  • There is big geographic variability in the ways we contaminate the environment and in the magnitude of our pollutant loading and impacts.
  • It is a big challenge just to estimate our greenhouse emissions. It is impossible to directly monitor all of the ways we alter the atmosphere and impact climate and ecosystems.
  • Identifying and quantifying our environmental impacts are necessary to foster better management of our activities and a transition to a more sustainable civilization.

With regard to specific course learning objectives, this activity was designed to help students:

  1. Characterize the natural processes and human activities important in influencing climate variability.
  2. Discuss the sources of uncertainty in models used to predict climate change and the likelihood of projected impacts on ecosystems and people.
  3. Apply geographic techniques in the analysis of environmental variability, including enhanced ability to read, interpret, and create maps, as well as read, interpret, and create graphs and charts.
  4. Evaluate and articulate learning gains in critical thinking and quantitative reasoning, particularly in abilities to analyze and work with quantitative data.
  5. Evaluate and articulate how they have improved in their ability to conduct research.
  6. Demonstrate facility in collaborating with a partner by producing quality work on time and in a professional manner.

Context for Use

This activity is designed as a term-long project largely conducted by students outside of class time. The course was Environmental Geography, which has no prerequisites and is meant for students at the sophomore level. Most of the students who take this course are non-science majors using it to fulfill a "Natural World" general education requirement.

For many of those students, this is one of the few courses they will take that emphasizes quantitative information and reasoning. It is assumed that students in this course have only the most basic understanding of the processes that control climate or of how it varies over time and space or of what goes into climate modeling. Most of the class time and readings are devoted to enhancing student understanding of these concepts.

There are a number of sub-assignments and class discussions that take place throughout the 10-week quarter to keep students moving forward and thinking about the project activity. The activity can easily be adapted for use at other institutions in any state in the country.

Description and Teaching Materials

The attachments here provide the teaching materials used in 2010 to help students work together to quantify the variability in greenhouse gas emissions from county to county in Washington State. Also included are the results of a 14-question survey that asked students to assess the term-long project. It shows that >70% of the students believed that the project helped them advance in a number of learning objectives, particularly those associated with quantitative reasoning.

The mechanics of the activity, from the student perspective, are spelled out in the first five attachments. Sources for data sets and formulas students can use to calculate CO2 equivalent emissions are found in the References and Resources section below.

An Overview of the Research Project (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 14kB Jan26 11)
List of Parameters for Student Partners (PowerPoint 2007 (.pptx) 716kB Jan26 11)
Emission Formulas and Discussion Assignment (Microsoft Word 34kB Jan26 11)
Emission Spreadsheet and Map Assignment (Microsoft Word 33kB Jan26 11)
Final Map and Report Assignment (Microsoft Word 33kB Jan26 11)

Here is a short report where I share and reflect on the results of the survey students took at the end of quarter to assess their take on various aspects of the project. An example of a student map produced for this project can be seen in this report. Also included is a list of the greenhouse gas sources that students were challenged to find data on and calculate emissions totals for each county in the state. Student Evaluations of Group Research Project (Acrobat (PDF) 207kB Jan29 11)

Teaching Notes and Tips

If you are in Washington State and want to adapt this project for one of your courses, then the lists of resources provided below will lead students to data sets and formulas they can use to complete the project. If you are in a different state, it is highly recommended that you search for equivalent data sets to ensure that the project will be fruitful for students working with the parameters you identify.

Most of the student pairs did a decent job of identifying relevant data sets and formulas, but they tended to have a difficult time writing explanations/justifications for what they did that the other students could readily understand. This became problematic when students had to evaluate the results of other student submissions in order to choose what data to include in calculating total emissions for each county. Standardizing the way that students describe the assumptions, uncertainties, and decisions associated with their data sets and formulas is recommended.

Naturally, it is important to set aside class time to regularly check in on student progress and problems and to evaluate some of the data sets and formulas students are working with. Demonstrating how to work with formulas and how to sort in Microsoft Excel is a must. It is also recommended that you set aside at least an hour near the end of the quarter to have a workshop in a computer lab where sudent pairs will work together on the final map and report assignment. The value of doing this is so they can talk with other student pairs about how they generated the total emissions for their particular parameter. This will help each student pair decide which data sets they will use in calculating total emissions per county.

Another good thing to do is to ask the students to write a reflective essay on what they learned by working through this project. It would also be good to give students a quiz or survey before beginning the project in order to better assess their learning gains at the end of it. Such a quiz or survey might focus on their: 1) understanding of greenhouse gases and their influence on climate; 2) knowledge of greenhouse gas emission sources; 3) understanding of what goes into a climate model; 4) their ability to evaluate and generate simple mathematical formulas; 5) their ability to interpret maps; and 6) their ability to use an excel spreadsheet.


Approximately 35% of the student's grade in the course depended on their performance on the collective assignments of the research project. What follows is a list of the sub-assignments with their point totals.

Emissions Formula and Discussion - 30pts
Emission Spreadsheet and Map - 22pts
Final Map and Report - 30pts

In addition, how well each student collaborated with their partner was assessed by their partner, which influenced their course participation grade (30pts).

See the Student Evaluations of Group Research Project attachment above to see detailed results of a 14-question survey that assessed the student perspective on their learning gains from the activity. Some example results are as follows:

  • 86% of the students agreed or strongly agreed that they and their partner both contributed an equivalent amount of effort to the group project work.
  • 70% of the students reported that they had "rarely" or "never" been asked to generate a formula for a class project.
  • 70% of the students agreed or strongly agreed that the project gave them more confidence in their ability to make sense of a formula and generate one of their own.
  • 75% of the students agreed or strongly agreed that the project gave them more confidence in their ability to generate useful products with quantitative data.
  • 79% of the students agreed or strongly agreed that the project has given me practice in comparing the relative merits of different sources of information on the same topic.
  • 84% of the students agreed or strongly agreed that the project expanded their knowledge of the sources of greenhouse gases.
  • 93% agreed or strongly agreed that the project increased their understanding of the challenges in estimating greenhouse gas emissions.

These statistics indicate that this activity can expand the environmental literacy of students while also activating their quantitative and critical thinking skills. It can also provide a framework for a more equitable and collaborative research experience than most independent or group research projects provide.

References and Resources

The most important resource is the free mapping software that student used to make maps online. Check it out! It has many applications beyond this project.

Links to Data Sets for Calculating Greenhouse Emissions in the Counties of Washington (Microsoft Word 36kB Jan29 11)

The following document contains links to a variety of references, mostly useful in determining how to calculate CO2equivalent emissions from different sources.
Other Resources to Use in Calculating Emissions (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 20kB Feb4 11)