Initial Publication Date: July 19, 2017

Curriculum Development in Environmental Science

Carleton's HHMI grant is supporting curriculum development in the area of Environmental Science and Earth Systems Science. The following projects are showcased below:

  • First-year seminar on abrupt change in climate and human networks (Trish Ferrett & Larry Wichlinski)
  • Computational modeling for environmental chemistry (Will Hollingsworth)
  • Case studies for an Environment and Science Policy course (Cam Davidson)
  • Statistical & Data exercises using Carleton campus energy data (Laura Chihara)

First-Year Seminar on Abrupt Change in Climate & Human Networks

Trish Ferrett
Larry Wichlinski
Trish's Carnegie project research findings on integrative science learning in this seminar ( This site may be offline. )

Prof. Trish Ferrett (Chemistry) taught a first-year seminar in fall 2005 (IDSC 100-01 ) on the integrative concept of abrupt change. On the science side, students studied what Thomas Kuhn calls "extraordinary science" by using historical climate data records and theories to investigate the emerging paradigm of abrupt change in global climate systems. This approach allowed students to explore the nature of complex natural systems and the dynamic human processes for knowledge building in science. The inquiry-based seminar circled through authentic questions that climate researchers are asking themselves today: 1) How fast can the global climate change? 2) Why does the climate change quickly? 3) How have past humans been affected by abrupt climate change? and 4) What about the possibility of abrupt climate change in our future?

Ice core data show abrupt change ~13,000 years ago
Seminar students also learned about abrupt change in human networks. This was done through joint readings, discussions, and writing assignments with a second seminar under the common theme of paradigm shifts in science (taught by Larry Wichlinski , Psychology). Larry's seminar studied the ongoing paradigm shift regarding the mind-brain relationship in neuroscience. Jointly, the students read Gladwell's Tipping Point, Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, and portions of Howard Gardner's Changing Minds and Jared Diamond's Collapse. This material allowed students to delve into abrupt changes of the human mind - at the level of individuals, small and large social groups, scientific communities, and civilizations. Trish and Larry also asked students to reflect on a past mind change and on their mind changes over the course. 

With Carleton College support and a 2005 Carnegie Scholars Award (with partner Joanne Stewart , Hope College), Trish is doing a scholarly study on students' integrative learning in this seminar. Her research addresses this question: In what ways are students "going beyond" as they make integrative moves in this inquiry seminar that circled a single transdisciplinary concept - abrupt change - with richly related perspectives from science and social science?

Larry and Trish were supported by HHMI in summer 2005 to develop these linked seminars. Trish was also supported in summer 2004 with a Carleton Wallin Faculty Development grant and a Carleton curriculum development grant. She received one course release in fall 2005 as part of Carleton's contribution to her Carnegie Scholars Award.

Computational Modeling for Environmental Chemistry

Will Hollingsworth
VENSIM model for simulating atmospheric ozone chemistry (click to enlarge)
With HHMI funding in summer 2006, Will Hollingsworth (Chemistry) is designing new computational modeling acitvities for his introductory environmental chemistry course (Chem 128). The exercises are aimed at helping students better understand the basics of chemical reaction rates (kinetics) and their application to environmental problems (including atmospheric ozone chemistry, see model at right). Will has been using two modeling programs: STELLA (more info) and VENSIM . He has been learning VENSIM, transfering modeling exercises from STELLA to VENSIM, and creating new Vensim models for student learning. Both of these programs will allow students to do interactive modeling of dynamic systems, including chemical reactions and environmental systems. 

Modeling of chemical reaction rates deals with the fundamental molecular steps in a chemical reaction. The focus is on exactly solvable expressions which apply for only the simplest cases. In contrast, models for environmental systems look more broadly at changes over time in much more complicated and macroscopic systems, without the benefit of exact mathematics or full system understanding. Dynamic system software, such as Vensim, allows students to create an important bridge between these two extremes. When exact mathematics are not possible in modeling environmental systems, a faithful representation of the system's time behavior can be determined through approximation. With Vensim, it is easy for the students to build visually intuitive models that can be easily adapted and altered to see how sensitive results are to changes in one or more key variables. 

Case Studies for an Environment & Science Policy Course

Cam Davidson
Cam Davidson (Geology) used HHMI curricular funds in summer 2006 to develop several case studies for use in his Environmental & Science Policy course (Geo 190) in winter 2007. Cam has used case studies in this course before, both at Carleton and Beloit College. Some of his past cases have included global warming, peak oil, the hydrogen economy, and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. In the past, students have engaged in three cases over the course, each lasting about three weeks. Early in each case, students are assigned to groups and asked to research the scientific background, political, social, legal, and economic aspects of the case. As a culminating project, student groups write a 1-2 page brief and then present their findings to a panel of peers in a mock congressional hearing. 

Cam is working now to enhance student understanding about how policy is really made. He is also working on improving the template for the case briefs and presentations. Cam is continuing to develop and integrate three cases - global warming, peak oil, and the hydrogen economy- while creating a new case for use in Geo 190 and other courses. 

Statistical & Data Exercises Using Carleton Campus Energy Data

Laura Chihara
Energy at Carleton

Laura Chihara (Mathmatics) is working on a project that arose from Carleton's workshop in December 2005 on What is Carleton's Energy Future?. At the workshop, it became clear that there was a need to assess and analyze Carleton's past and current energy usage. Laura is using HHMI support in summer 2006 to develop data and statistical exercises for her statistics courses (Math 115 and 275) based on Carleton energy data. 

In addition to using some available data from Carleton's Facilities Office, Laura supervised two independent study students in spring 2006 who gathered data on campus energy usage by specific devices (laptop and desktop computers, etc.). Using these data, Laura is developing exercises in exploratory data analysis (EDA), a method that finds patterns, looks for structure, reveals relationships, and uncovers anomalies and outliers. Students will use statistical graphics and numeric summaries in their investigations. These exercises will give students a chance to apply what they learn in the course about EDA techniques and statistics to a real-world problem. Students working on this project will get their "hands dirty" in an open-ended exploration of Carleton-generated data. In addition, they will learn about issues of energy usage, energy sources, and public policy.