Plant Responses to Global Change

Laurie Anderson
Ohio Wesleyan University


This course explores how plants and ecosystems interact with the global environmental changes of rising temperatures, rising atmospheric carbon dioxide, increasing nitrogen deposition and changing precipitation patterns. Our goal is to explore the ways in which people and plants are shaping the future of our planet.

Course Size:
less than 15

Course Format:
Students enroll in one course that includes both lecture and lab. The lecture and the lab are both taught by the professor.

Institution Type:
Private four-year institution, primarily undergraduate

Course Context:

This is an upper level course that is usually taken by advanced students in biology or environmental science. The course has a prerequisite of one introductory biology course.

Course Content:

In this course, plant responses to global environmental change are examined in terms of physiology and ecosystem dynamics, and the implications of these interactions are linked to ecosystem function, global biogeochemical cycles, climate change, and the future of the biosphere. Tropical rainforests, which have a significant role in global and regional climate, the boreal/tundra habitat, which has experienced the most dramatic warming of all ecosystems, the temperate forest, where we live, and agricultural ecosystems, which support human civilization, all serve as case studies to explore these topics more deeply. The course has a required lab that focuses heavily on data analysis exercises. Students contribute to a greenhouse experiment comparing plant responses to drought and write a review paper on a global change topic. During some semesters, the course is taught with a required end of semester travel component that substitutes for the lab. The travel focuses on studying plant responses to global change for a particular ecosystem context. Previous trips have traveled to Alaska and the Brazilian Amazon.

Course Goals:

- Students will be able to describe global changes in atmospheric carbon dioxide, temperature, nitrogen deposition, and precipitation, and how human activities interact with these changes at the ecosystem to global scale.
- Students will be able to explain how carbon, nitrogen, water, and temperature affect the physiology and growth of individual plants and how processes at the physiological level connect to processes at the ecosystem and biosphere scales.
- Students will be able to discuss the relevance of global changes in carbon, nitrogen, water, and temperature for boreal/tundra ecosystems, tropical rainforests, temperate forests and agricultural ecosystems and how the responses of these ecosystems to these changes interact as feedbacks to the biosphere and the climate.
- Students will be able to describe a range of field sampling approaches, instruments, and data analysis techniques used in global environmental change research, such as eddy covariance and automated environmental sensor technology.
- Students will be able to manipulate sample datasets to explore global change questions.
- Students will be able to describe the major features of tropical forests, boreal forests, tundra, temperate forests and agricultural systems in terms of soil, vegetation, dominant animal life, climate, and biogeochemical cycles.
- Students will be able to explain climate modeling scenarios that are relevant to the boreal/tundra, tropical forest, and temperate forest regions and the regional to global implications of these ecosystem changes (such as permafrost melting, glacier melting and vegetation changes from boreal to temperate forest).
- Students will be able to describe human pressures on natural ecosystems and how these may exacerbate or mitigate climate change effects.
- Students will explore creative options for sustainable use and preservation of natural ecosystems in the context of dramatic global changes.
- Students will learn best practices for scientific field ecology research.

Course Features:

The course is very much oriented toward using ecosystem case studies to explore global change issues and many topics covered in lecture are connected to assigned primary literature readings. The course also incorporates simple data analysis exercises exploring climate models and has the students analyzing data from a greenhouse study comparing the responses of C3 vs. C4 plants to drought.

Course Philosophy:

I am lucky to have small classes and the resources to frequently teach this course as a travel course. The course tends to attract strong students. The structure of focusing on carbon, water, nitrogen and temperature is a good lens for introducing physiological ecology to the uninitiated and linking lecture content and lab activities with specific primary literature articles.


The students are assessed through their performance on exams, their final literature review paper, and their completion of lab exercises that are generally graded on a pass-fail/participation basis.


Syllabus (Acrobat (PDF) 345kB Apr30 19)

References and Notes: