InTeGrate Modules and Courses >Carbon, Climate, and Energy Resources > Instructor Materials: Overview of the Carbon, Climate and Energy Resources Module
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These materials are part of a collection of classroom-tested modules and courses developed by InTeGrate. The materials engage students in understanding the earth system as it intertwines with key societal issues. The materials are free and ready to be adapted by undergraduate educators across a range of courses including: general education or majors courses in Earth-focused disciplines such as geoscience or environmental science, social science, engineering, and other sciences, as well as courses for interdisciplinary programs.
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Instructor Materials: Overview of the Carbon, Climate and Energy Resources Module

Module Goal: The module has three main goals: students will be able to relate the movement of carbon between Earth reservoirs to changes in climate through Earth history; students will be able to critically evaluate statements about the relationship between climate and the carbon cycle for scientific validity; and students will develop an understanding of fossil fuel formation and assess the impact of various policy proposals on the carbon cycle and human society.

Summative Assessment: Each unit offers a quiz that can be used as a post-unit summative assessment. The module concludes with students writing a 1–2 paragraph statement in support or dissent of an energy use proposal that they choose from a list. This statement must include their own personal opinion and be well supported with facts and evidence. This statement should draw on multiple lines of evidence supporting the student's position, and as such, could be used to provide the instructor with a comprehensive sense of what the student has learned throughout this module. Learn more about assessing student learning in this module.

These materials have been reviewed for their alignment with the Next Generation Science Standards. At the top of each page, you can click on the NGSS logo to see the specific connections. Visit InTeGrate and the NGSS to learn more about the process of alignment and how to use InTeGrate materials to implement the NGSS.

NGSS in this Module

Overall, this module focuses on developing a systemic understanding of the carbon cycle from formation of fossil fuels to how humans are changing the carbon cycle to cause global climate changes. Ending the module on solutions is a strong and effective pedagogic manuver that enables students to conceptualize human and ecosystem survival.

This module engages students in critical thinking about common climate misconceptions, and grounds a discussion of anthropogenic climate change in a thorough understanding of the carbon cycle, past and present. Designed for undergraduate geoscience courses, the units may be employed as stand-alone activities or in any sequence. The majority of the exercises are adaptable for online or hybrid courses with few to no adjustments.

The module utilizes individual reflection, small group discussion, think/pair/share, lab work, simulations and games, brief lectures, videos, argument analysis, web research, spreadsheet calculations, and graph generation and interpretation as techniques for exploring the issues across the biosphere, atmosphere, geosphere, hydrosphere, so that we may better understand the anthroposphere's role in the Earth system.

The module is focused on the grand challenges of climate change and energy resources, both interdisciplinary issues that are fascinating because they are complex and tie together disciplines as disparate as economics, technology, public policy, logic and rhetoric, paleoclimatology, organic chemistry, and sedimentary geology.

Geoscientists addressing these challenges must be willing to compare what they observe in the modern world to information recorded by geologic processes in rocks that formed in ancient times. Earth is a dynamic place, and the complexities of its many moving parts mean that small changes in one part of the closed system may result in large changes elsewhere in the system. The scientists who attempt to understand its machinations are more confident in their conclusions when multiple lines of empirical evidence converge on the same conclusion. This perspective (systems thinking, as filtered through the geoscientific mind) is imbued throughout the module's six units, so that it may be transferred to student learners. We aim not only to train them to think like geoscientists, but to be conscious of this change in mindset as they engage in it (metacognition).

Units within this module introduce evidence of perturbations to the carbon cycle in the past that have resulted in hot and cold climate change, and the genesis of the subterranean accumulations of carbon that we call fossil fuels. The module investigates how releasing carbon from fossil fuels is destabilizing Earth's modern climate, and this fact should inform decisions on the extraction of nontraditional fossil fuels such as oil shale. Furthermore, these units will help address common student misconceptions and misunderstandings regarding the role of carbon and the atmosphere and climate, including: carbon reservoirs and how carbon moves between reservoirs, the role of carbon on greenhouse gases and global climate, general illogical statements and arguments, accessibility of energy resources, rejuvenation of energy resources, and long-term viability of energy resources.

Some units will require use of a computer with access to the Internet and basic graphing, presenting, and word processing software (e.g. Microsoft Excel, PowerPoint, and Word). Others require access to laboratory equipment including glassware and samples of coal.

The learning goals for the module are . . .
  1. Students will examine their own pre-existing conceptions and misconceptions regarding the carbon cycle.
  2. Students will practice critical thinking and learn to identify common logical fallacies. Students will examine common arguments made by climate change denialists, and evaluate these ideas from a scientific perspective through skeptical treatment.
  3. Students will recognize reservoirs and fluxes within the carbon cycle and demonstrate that knowledge in graphical form.
  4. Through the perspective of geologic time, students will learn about the formation of fossil fuels. Students will use geologic evidence to explain why geoscientists have concluded that climate has changed over time.
  5. Students will examine changes in modern atmospheric gas concentrations and the investigate the impacts of carbon dioxide on various components of the Earth system.
  6. Students will use their newfound understanding of the carbon system to evaluate a suite of future energy choices and evaluate their sustainability and consequences.

Unit 1 Identifying Misconceptions and Logical Fallacies

Students will identify commonly used logical fallacies and misconceptions about climate science. By the end of this unit, students will be able to distinguish logically valid and invalid statements, and critique common misconceptions about climate science.

Unit 2 The Carbon Cycle

Students will explore the different aspects of the carbon cycle on Earth. This includes the original source of all the carbon on our planet, the near ubiquity of carbon, the six principle reservoirs of carbon in the Earth system, and the movement (flux) of carbon between reservoirs. Students will approach the chemical history of carbon by personifying the "journey" of specific carbon atoms throughout geologic time.

Unit 3 Geologic Record of Past Climate: Paleoclimate through geologic time

This unit looks to the past. Students will be introduced to a few of the different methods of paleoclimatology, with a focus on stable isotope fractionation. They will investigate the greenhouse gas connections of two ancient climate episodes, the cold "Snowball Earth" of the Neoproterozoic Era and the hot "Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum" (PETM) of the Cenozoic Era.

Unit 4 Fossil Fuel Formation

Where do fossil fuels come from? In this unit, students will explore various aspects of fossil fuels, examining coal samples and the processes by which coal, oil, and natural gas form. Students will also learn about the location of energy facilities in their state (coal mines, oil and gas wells, power plants, refineries, and pipelines), and the location of coal, oil, and natural gas resources in the continental United States. Students will also explore data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) to learn about fossil fuel production, company level imports, consumption, and electricity generation.

Unit 5 Modern CO2 Accumulation

Students will examine data that record the modern increase in greenhouse gas concentrations and attendant increase in average temperatures, and they will investigate the impacts of this infusion of carbon dioxide on various components of the Earth system (atmosphere, cryosphere, oceans).

Unit 6 Moving Forward: Evaluating impacts of modern-day initiatives and proposals affecting the carbon cycle and climate

This unit looks to the future. Students explore nontraditional, carbon- and non-carbon-based energy sources and compare these options to traditional fossil fuels. This unit also endeavors for students to consider what is meant by "sustainability" and the comprehensive implications of exploiting any particular energy source.

Making the Module Work

To adapt all or part of the Carbon, Climate, and Energy Module for your classroom, you will also want to read through

The module is designed to applicable in a variety of introductory-level geoscience classes.

In Physical Geology, portions of the module (Unit 4) relate to discussions of sedimentary rocks and energy resources, while others (Units 3 and 5) are more aligned with global climate change in the modern and geologic timescales. Unit 1 could be thought of as following Units 5 and 6 as a meta-analysis of societal conversation about climate change, or as an initial unit on the distinctions that elevate scientific logic above less disciplined ways of thinking. Unit 2 does not have a clear place in a physical geology course. Though an introduction to the carbon cycle is given glancing treatment in many physical geology textbooks, biogeochemical cycles for some reason are not seen traditionally as falling within physical geology's purview. This seems wrong to us, and we would like to see a greater infusion of systems thinking into all Earth science courses.

In Historical Geology, portions of the module (Units 2 and 4) could be introduced in the early "methods" portion of the course, while other portions (Units 3 and 5) could be included at their appropriate temporal positions during the "March of history" portion of the course. Units 1 and 6 (about critical thinking and energy choices) could be included at the end of the course if a larger sense of the utility and applicability of historical geology (to modern societal questions) is a priority of the instructor.

In Environmental Geology/Environmental Science, the entire unit would function best as a stand-alone, in-sequential-order module. It could even be expanded and extended, based on whether environmental geology is taught as a 100-, 200- or 300- level course. For instance, the manipulation and plotting of isotope data in module 3 could be expanded for a 300- level environmental geology course, while a 100-level environmental geology instructor might just offer the graphs pre-made for student interpretation.

In any class, the entire module could be taught as a coherent two-week unit either at the end or the beginning of the course, if that meets the content standards of the institution and the priorities of the instructor.

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These materials are part of a collection of classroom-tested modules and courses developed by InTeGrate. The materials engage students in understanding the earth system as it intertwines with key societal issues. The collection is freely available and ready to be adapted by undergraduate educators across a range of courses including: general education or majors courses in Earth-focused disciplines such as geoscience or environmental science, social science, engineering, and other sciences, as well as courses for interdisciplinary programs.
Explore the Collection »