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Cindy Shellito: Adapting Climate of Change for a Large Lecture Course at the University of Northern Colorado

About this Course

An an introductory survey course in meteorology and climatology.


Three 50-minute lecture
One 2-hour lab
public university

Syllabus (Acrobat (PDF) 180kB Aug29 13)

This course is designed to help students discover Earth's atmosphere and the forces that drive changes in the weather. Much of the course focuses on helping students understand the basics of daily and seasonal changes in the atmosphere. Students learn about the tools meteorologists use on a daily basis, current weather information online, and the basics of weather forecasting. The course also covers most severe types of weather phenomena, such as tornadoes, thunderstorms, hurricanes, and winter storms, with an emphasis on how to protect yourself during severe weather. Finally, the course delves into short-term and long-term climate changes on Earth, and tries to place present-day changes in the context of what has happened in the past.

Course Goals

  • Understand basic meteorological principles and how they affect your everyday life (for example, why do we have weather? How does weather affect the many aspects of human activity?)
  • Discuss and demonstrate how scientists solve problems in meteorology (how do meteorologists make weather observations? Or a weather forecast?)
  • Be able to identify cause-and-effect relationships, draw conclusions from evidence, and synthesize information to understand the current weather and climate situation.
  • Explain how the science of meteorology developed from a historical perspective.
  • Be able to record and interpret your own weather observations.
  • Be able to analyze and interpret weather data in order to anticipate what will happen in the future.
  • Understand the impacts of both short- and long-term climate changes on society.
  • Know how to use some of the quantitative methods needed to interpret data.

Course Content

The course meets requirements for the UNCo Liberal Arts Core (LAC) Curriculum. Most students take the course to satisfy the LAC. The course is also taken by first-year students or transfer students who are Earth Science majors emphasizing in Environmental Science, Secondary Education, or Meteorology. Geology emphasis majors are not required to take this course.

Students began the Climate of Change module after 10 weeks of instruction in introductory meteorology. Students were familiar with factors that drive weather, concepts such as radiation, stability, seasons, global general circulation, and circulation in midlatitude storm systems. Students had experience contouring and reading weather maps and were familiar with the process of weather forecasting.

Key content areas in this course include the following:

  • atmospheric structure and composition
  • radiation, the greenhouse effect, and Earth's energy balance
  • seasonal and diurnal temperature fluctuations
  • humidity: dew, frost, and cloud formation
  • atmospheric stability
  • weather maps and forecasting
  • forces that drive motion and the creation of high- and low-pressure systems
  • global general circulation
  • midlatitude cyclones
  • severe weather: thunderstorms, tornadoes, and hurricanes
  • climate variability and climate change

A Success Story in Building Student Engagement

How often does a lecture hall full of students in an introductory science class buzz with energy? In my nearly 10 years of teaching introductory meteorology, I can say it has been rare. The activities in the Climate of Change module had students in my introductory-level General Meteorology class up and out of their seats, looking at and discussing the same data that scientists use to understand climate variability and climate change. This module prompts students to consider the broad-ranging societal impacts of climate change in the past, present, and future, and that engages them in science.

The activities in the Climate of Change module had students in my introductory-level General Meteorology class up and out of their seats, looking at and discussing the same data that scientists use to understand climate variability and climate change.

My Experience Teaching with InTeGrate Materials

Using the Climate of Change module in a lecture hall forced me to think about how to use my classroom space in new ways. It allowed me to find ways to better align my teaching in a lecture hall with the things that I value most in teaching and learning science: engagement, inquiry, and problem solving.
Cindy discusses how she used the Climate of Change module in her course. Download Cindy Shellito 2 (MP4 Video 9.4MB) Details

Relationship of InTeGrate Materials to my Course

The module was implemented during the 11th and 12th weeks of the semester. Students were accustomed to a lecture format during the 50-minute class period, interspersed with occasional short in-class activities or discussion. Starting about a week prior to the beginning of the module, students were told in class and in lab that the format of the class period would be changing for a couple of weeks, and to be prepared to participate. I used supplemental materials for each unit in the lab section of the class.

UNIT 1: Forecasting Climate Variability and Change: A Matter of Survival

  • Prepare students to read material ahead of time, and let them know that you expect them to participate in discussion. Most of my students were very willing to participate! I used five of the gallery walk questions, with the same questions posted on each side of the lecture hall. The class was divided in half, approximately, then students formed their own groups of three to five, and each group visited each of the five questions.
  • Provide each group a big ink marker, and 3 to 4 minutes at each poster. If using this activity in a large class, it is helpful to have a TA or another professor there to direct students when it is time for them to go to the next poster. Groups will return to their own poster after about 15 to 20 minutes. At that point, ask them to choose a group reporter, and put a mark next to things they feel are most valuable to share with the rest of the class. After everyone is seated (reporters remained standing at their posters), reporters share answers to questions.
  • In my own class, at this point I took notes on the doc cam at the front of the room and tried to interject, at various points, to summarize and link similarities among answers to questions. Some of the big themes that came up were (1) adaptations to climate change, past and present; (2) what type of things are important to consider in adapting to climate change; (3) differences between climate variability and climate change. My taking notes on what the groups were reporting at the front of the room prompted most students to take notes as well.

UNIT 2: Deciphering Short-Term Climate Variability

  • Depending on the size of the class and the amount of time in a class period, you might choose to remove the pressure anomaly data and questions, and only distribute data and questions about temperature and precipitation. Each student should receive handouts with the questions related to their specific data set (precipitation, temperature, or pressure), and the data in black and white. The SST black-and-white data are not so easy to read after xeroxing, so consider distributing color copies of each data set, one for each group of three to five students. Alternatively, if students have easy access to laptops or mobile devices in the classroom, you might direct them to access the data online.
  • It's helpful to explain to students at the beginning of class that the goal of this activity is to try to make sense of TAO data. I distributed the precipitation data packets to the students sitting in the front of the lecture hall, and the temperature data packets to the students in the back of the hall. I showed students an image of the TAO array and a buoy, and discussed the data collected in the tropical Pacific.
  • Students took ~20 minutes to look at the data. This was followed by a ~20-minute discussion. We used a simplified table on the doc cam to summarize features of what they found to be the most anomalous years. We also talked about the connection between temperature and precipitation, and discussed what pressure anomalies might look like (even though we didn't look at them). We discussed the annual cycle and looked at the Hovmöller diagram of SSTs as a class. At this point, some students identified the phenomenon we were considering as El Niño, so I drew a quick diagram to illustrate changes in temperature, precipitation, and pressure that occur during an El Niño.

UNIT 3: Anomalous Behavior

  • I implemented Unit 3 as an interactive lecture. I began class by distributing to students a modified form of Case Study 3.1 (Modified Case Study 3.1 (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 275kB May22 14)). I had intended to have them work on various questions in the handout at various points in my lecture. But some of the questions were very easy for them to answer (one student shouted out the answer to a question before I even asked students to write down their answers). For students who have been studying meteorology all semester, Case Study 3.1 is not difficult. So, I let them take the handout home to use as preparation for the final. It took nearly 45 minutes to discuss the mechanics of ENSO and ocean upwelling, their immediate impacts, and also introduce feedbacks.
  • Key Point: Students will want to know what impacts El Niño has regionally. This is an opportunity to engage them and consider local impacts. You can access information about the effects of ENSO in your region at the Climate Prediction Center: ENSO Impacts on the U.S.
  • General Note: In this unit, try to connect what students learned from the Unit 2 data-analysis activity to the mechanics of the El Niño-Southern Oscillation. Use this as an opportunity to show them real-time ENSO data, after spending time discussing mechanics and immediate (equatorial) impacts. In my class, I also tried to make the connection between the ENSO and the impacts of climate variability in the Andes and in Central America (Mayan culture).

UNIT 4: Slow and Steady?

  • In this unit there is a nice balance between group and individual work, and larger class discussion. Transitions from one part of Case Study 4.1 to the next proceeded very smoothly. The case study can be implemented in a large lecture class without modification.
  • I introduced the class with some photos from the Extreme Ice Survey.
  • Try to connect this unit back to the Vikings, and introduce the Extreme Ice Survey as another team looking at Greenland ice. Use this and the slides from the Unit 4 page to set the stage for analysis of albedo. It also may be helpful to talk about the climate system, and how the ice fits in with this system.
  • Consider letting students begin the handout (page 1) before handing out the data; that way, they will not be influenced by the data in how they answered part 1.
  • It will be difficult to complete the full handout in a 50-minute class period, so use the guidelines in the Unit 4 Instructor Notes to determine how much of the activity to use.

UNIT 5: systems@play

The activity in Case Study 5.1 is a challenge in a large class but worth the effort! On the day that I did this activity, there were only 38 students present. Students really need space to move around, so if you have a big class, you might look into the possibility of moving into a larger room when you do Unit 5. It is also helpful to have a TA or another professor present to help answer questions and direct students. If finding larger room is not possible, consider finding another way of doing the climate modeling game that does not involve having students move around very much (perhaps have them do the personality quiz ahead of time, then form groups with the people sitting nearest to them).

How this worked in my class:

  • I created a short PowerPoint slide show to review the climate system and briefly talk about the interactions between climate system components. I spent 10 minutes on this introductory PowerPoint, and in providing directions. CaseStudy5.1 Introductory PPT (PowerPoint 2007 (.pptx) 70kB Aug29 13) I introduced students to the idea of climate modeling, and what a climate model does. I told them that our classroom would become a "climate model" today, and each of them were "programs" (like in the movie Tron). The PowerPoint slides had explicit directions for forming groups and running the simulation.
  • To assign roles to students, I gave them slips of paper at the beginning of class with their role on it. I had no idea how many students would show up that day, so I had enough slips for 10 modeling groups. As it turned out, there were 5 complete groups (with six players each), and one group of four, which did the simulation without a couple of members. Students got really excited when I handed out the role sheets, and took ownership of their role fairly quickly.
  • When students got into groups to fill out the Personality Quiz, I told them they were creating the "programming rules" that would govern the climate simulation. I had students self-organize into role groups, which worked well. About 10 minutes were sufficient for completing the Personality Quiz.
  • When students got into modeling groups, some needed coaching about where to start. Some got confused when the parameter they were responding to was the same as the role they were playing, but this brought the idea of feedbacks into the discussion. Students had ~20 minutes to complete their modeling simulation.
  • I called the class back to order 5 minutes before the end of class, for a quick debriefing. I asked the class to tell me what happened in their modeling experiments, and what they noticed. The first comment from a student was about how climate models all get different results. I don't want them to think models are useless, so I immediately pointed out that that was the case here because the rules governing response of the system (the personality quiz) was a bit fuzzy. If we had very clear rules (as we do in the real world), the outcomes would be closer. I asked students if their results changed after three rounds—they said yes—due to feedbacks. This was the response I had been hoping for.

UNIT 6: Adapting to a Changing World

  • If a gallery walk is difficult due to classroom structure or number of students, this unit can be completed as part of an interactive lecture. I provided students a set of supplemental notes (Unit 6 Gallery Walk questions as Supplemental Notes (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 177kB May22 14)), and at various points in the class period, had them read, then answer the gallery walk questions posted on PowerPoint. Students can discuss the questions in pairs, then share in a larger class discussion.
  • I also tried to tie this unit back to the Mayans, Vikings, and Incas.


I used three assessment questions, listed under Embedded Assessment questions on the Assessment page for the Climate of Change module. These questions seemed particularly effective at helping me determine how well students had processed the new materials and ideas from this module.


My hope in implementing the Climate of Change module was that students would become engaged in the topic, become active learners in the classroom, and more easily understand the complex interactions that occur as a part of climate variability and climate change. Students commented favorably at the end of the semester about the opportunity to move around the class and discuss ideas in a large lecture hall. While I did not have a control group to compare this class with, responses on exam questions from students who were present for the activities in the module suggest that it accomplished what I had hoped for.

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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 »