Adding climate modeling into ENTS 287, Climate Science

Deborah Gross, CHEM and ENTS, Carleton College
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Initial Publication Date: October 8, 2012


A variety of exercises to familiarize students with the EdGCM global circulation model have been developed. Students carry these out in groups and individually, and gives students the opportunity to explore finding data in IPCC reports, setting up simulations, and analyzing the output of the climate model.

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Learning Goals

Development of modeling modules for the Climate Science course to enable students to not only learn about how climate science is done, but to actually do it, using a modeling tool that is modern and rigorous. Exercises will give students an opportunity to appreciate the complexities of generating a hypothesis, working with a large amount of data, and figuring out what kind of answer(s) they can generate.

Context for Use

The exercises described above were developed for use in a new course taught at the 200-level at Carleton College. The course resides in the Environmental Studies program, and the pre-reqs were essentially any introductory science class and any introductory math class (calculus or statistics). This meant that the students enrolled in this first offering ranged from first-years through seniors, with about 1/3 of the class undeclared in their major and the other 2/3 divided between science and environmental studies majors. This audience made it challenging to teach an inherently scientific and mathematical topic like climate modeling, as the level we could get to was a stretch for some and oversimplified for others. The class had no laboratory section, but was held in a computer-enabled classroom, so that EdGCM activities could be carried out during class, as appropriate. These assignments can all be adapted, and were done over 1 – 2 weeks each, including work done during class and outside of class. Individual assignment handouts are available upon request to

Description and Teaching Materials

Students in ENTS 287 engaged in one introductory and three major assignments using EdGCM, which are summarized here. These were portions of the class, not the only work that students did. The class used Neelin, Climate Change and Climate Modeling, Cambridge University Press (2010) as a textbook.

Introduction to EdGCM. Students worked in small groups using pre-run and installed results in EdGCM. They worked through the tutorial provided by NASA GISS with EdGCM and developed hypotheses which they could examine using the output data from EdGCM. They presented the results to each other on posters which they made with markers and large poster-sheets, including print-outs of graphs generated in EdGCM.

Assignment 4. EdGCM Glossary. In consultation with the NASA GISS group, we obtained a list of all of the map and time series variables which are adjustable within the EdGCM program. Because EdGCM includes no definitions or information about the variables, except units, the students were tasked with creating short definitions to include in a glossary of the variables. They did literature research to learn about the variables assigned to them, worked in small groups to critique their rough drafts of their glossary definitions, and then submitted revised definitions. We used this as a resource for future work during the term and submitted the results to the NASA GISS staff, with the hope that the glossary entries provided by the students will be edited and made public with EdGCM, as a resource for future users.

Assignment 6. IPCC Scenarios. EdGCM comes with a pre-set simulation of the A1FI scenario from IPCC (the predicted CO2 trend for this scenario is included, none of the other gases are implemented). The students in the class were divided up into groups and each group implemented one of the other IPCC scenarios from the main group that IPCC recommends modeling studies incorporate (A1T, A2, B1, B2). The class as a whole determined a set of variables that they wanted to investigate in the future, based on questions they were interested in. The class then generated a report in which each group summarized the results for the scenario they implemented and new groups, made of representatives from the scenario groups, compared the variables of interest across the scenarios they simulated. This was all assembled into a significant (~70 page) final report co-authored by the entire class, which serves as a resource about the various scenarios.

Assignment 10. Final Project. Students worked individually to investigate a hypothesis about future climate through evaluating EdGCM results. This assignment constituted the final project/final exam for the course. There were two ways to proceed with this assignment:
1) Students developed a hypothesis which could be tested using the calculations of the IPCC scenarios that were already completed earlier in the course, and for which the data already existed in EdGCM. Students were required to create a hypothesis that included a substantively different analysis than that which they did during the survey of the various scenarios and variables in Assignment 6.
2) Students developed a hypothesis which required setting up a new EdGCM simulation, running it, and analyzing the resulting data. This provided an opportunity for testing a geoengineering proposal or for investigating other specific changes to the climate system (including changes in GHGs other than CO2). This required setting up and running the simulation prior to analysis of the results.

Teaching Notes and Tips

Work with IT staff on campus to set up the computers is a way that students can actually run simulations in EdGCM.


Students had homework and presentations about the work done in the EdGCM modeling package. These were be assessed for specific learning goals (defined for the specific projects undertaken).

References and Resources

The EdGCM website ( is the source of information about the climate model software, tutorials, etc.

The website for the Neelin textbook ( contains useful information and exercises to use in conjunction with the textbook.