Case Study 5.1 - Interactions: Climate's Tangled Web
I designed this activity as a role-playing game to help students understand both the concept of climate modeling and how the climate system works. Students take on the role of a climate system component, examining their personal reactions to climate stimuli and building a future scenario based on their group's reactions. You can implement this teaching collection as part of the Climate of Change InTeGrate Module, Unit 5, or as a stand-alone activity.
During this activity students:
- Experience the varied responses of climate system components to forcing mechanisms.
- Model climate manually using climate system relationships.
- Evaluate a climate model and its output.
My goals in creating this activity were to:
- Convey the purpose and theoretical function of climate models.
- Instruct on the climate system actively by giving students climate identities and placing them within that system.
- Enable students to assess the validity of statements concerning the climate system and ways of knowing and modeling that system.
Context for Use
Prior to the activity students will need some basic instruction on the nature of climate science, modeling, and feedbacks. If you are using the rest of Unit 5, no additional instruction is necessary.
This activity takes roughly 40 minutes and can be used
- as a stand-alone in-class activity on the climate system and climate modeling in an introductory geology, meteorology, geography, or environmental science class,
- as a lab on climate science and climate records when coupled with Case Study 5.2,
- as a lab on prediction of change related to climate process when coupled with Case Study 4.2, or
- as part of the complete Unit 5 and/or Climate of Change InTeGrate Module.
Description and Teaching Materials
Systems interactions, feedbacks, and thresholds are the conceptual foci of this activity. The game takes up most of class time, so you need to keep a keen eye on the clock and keep things running smoothly to enable students to finish at least building their scenarios (model outputs) during class time with the rest of their model group. (See below for time-saving and simplification tips.) The questions in the assignment portion may be completed as homework.
The game has four parts:
- Preparation - Each student should initially receive an assignment and a climate response guide. It may be helpful to hand out the assignment as preparatory reading. Depending on the rest of your experience and curriculum, you can alter the response guide to reflect feedbacks and thresholds your students have learned or that are particularly relevant.
- Model groups (≥ 20 min) - Each model group, composed of one member from each role, is a climate model. Each group "runs" their climate scenario using their climate response guides.
- Each scenario has a starting point (forcing mechanism) from which the group has to build a future (model output). Each student (climate attribute) in the group will use the response guide to "react" within the scenario, creating a story or set of events (climate changes).
- The climate scenario worksheets provide the model's starting point and a place for students to record their group's decisions and reactions during play. (Depending on how you want to focus discussion after, you can have groups use different scenarios/starting points, or have them all use the same one.) The numbers on the worksheet represent rounds of play. During each round, each player takes a turn reacting to everything that has happened so far in the game.
- The first player in the first round only responds to the initial force in their group's scenario. Thereafter players must respond to all previous players' actions since their last turn. The climate response guide contains simple up/down relationships, but once a student is responding to several forces that conflict, they will need to decide between them what the dominant response will be.
- During play every student fills out their scenario sheet, recording all players' responses. For some roles (most notably tectonics) there may be no reactions. Because student groups play at different paces, it is helpful to stress that they should concentrate on playing the game rather than making it through all rounds of play within the time limits. They can complete the rest of the assignment without finishing all five rounds. The number of rounds of play is completely arbitrary, but if you would like to ensure a certain efficiency, you can specify a minimum number for your students. It is also helpful to stress that their is no "right" or "wrong" necessarily, but that they should stay as true to their "programming" (i.e., response guide) as possible.
- Debrief - Leaving time for group/class reflection is critical. It is even more important to debrief the activity than to play more rounds. As the activity is so open-ended, students will want to express their uncertainties and know whether what they created and the choices they made were "correct." They will also need help from you to connect their experience to real models and to understand why we should trust them. It may be helpful to have
- multiple groups run the same scenario and discuss why/how their outcomes/outputs are different,
- students compare and contrast their model with a computer model, and/or
- students discuss why some roles changed their behavior so frequently (temperature) and some did not (tectonics).
- Assignment - This set of instructions and questions serves to guide students through the activity and provides opportunities for processing of and reflection on their lived immersive climate-modeling experience. Reflection and diagramming questions can be completed in class if there is time or as homework. Questions embedded in the assignment ask them to record, diagram, and reflect on their model's output, the nature of the climate system, and the realism of the role-playing game. Many of the responses will vary in both correctness and insight. Depending on the rest of your course material and students' experiences, you will have to gauge acceptability of some responses; so the instructor's notes are a guide rather than a key.
There are further opportunities for reflection and synthesis if you complete both Unit 5 activities, as students will gain complementary insight to ways of knowing climate attributes, roles, and behaviors through climate data analysis in Case Study 5.2.
- Climate Response Guide & Scenarios
- Case Study 5.1 Climate Scenarios (Acrobat (PDF) 168kB Oct3 12)
Teaching Notes and Tips
In playing the game, students may want to express their individuality through chaotic or unpredictable behavior, or create new climate thresholds. I like to encourage students to be creative but within limits: remind them that although arguably the future could present an utterly new climate scenario, real models are constructed using past/known behaviors and relationships.
Some students may become bogged down in the detail possible in reacting in the model. The climate response guide contains simple up/down relationships, but once a student is responding to seven forces that conflict, they may find it hard to decide. Remind them to keep things specific but brief in order to keep the class moving.
Time-saving and simplification options:
- Reduce the number of model groups and/or climate scenarios.
- Reduce the number of roles used during play. The most logical to remove is tectonics, followed by clouds and precipitation.
- Run the climate model together as a class, with you as facilitator and groups of the same role deciding together what their response will be during each round. (This option may take longer, depending on the tendency of the role groups toward consensus.)
This activity is formative. You can develop exam questions to assess this activity directly from the learning outcomes.
References and Resources
Climate System and Change
- Climate Change and Its Effects on Humans, State of the Gulf of Maine Report
- NASA Oceanography: Ocean and Earth System
- IPCC 2007 FAQ: How Do Human Activities Contribute to Climate Change and How do They Compare with Natural Influences?
- interactive e-book: The Habitable Planet - Unit 12 - Earth's Changing Climate
- Educational Global Climate Modeling (EdGCM)
- NASA GISS: The Physics of Climate Modeling
- article: Study calls for integration within US climate modelling community
- video: PICS: What is a climate model?
- video: NCAR: Arctic sea ice loss - climate model predictions