Becca Walker: Teaching Climate of Change in an Introductory Oceanography Course for Nonscience Majors at Mt. San Antonio College, CA
About this Course
An introductory course for nonmajors.
Optional lab section
Syllabus (Acrobat (PDF) 182kB Jan4 14)
A Success Story in Building Student Engagement
I teach introductory courses primarily for nonscience majors at a community college and wanted to change how I taught climate change. Before working with the InTeGrate project, climate change instruction in my oceanography course was limited to lecture and perhaps a bit of class discussion, which usually turned into a political debate. Using units 1, 2.1, 3.1, 4.1, 5.1, and 6 of the InTeGrate Climate of Change module allowed my students to interpret real ocean, atmosphere, and ice data; consider the uncertainty and complexity inherent in the climate system and in predicting future changes; explore how ancient and modern societies have adapted to climate fluctuations; and work collaboratively to tackle qualitative and quantitative problems related to the climate system.
My Experience Teaching with InTeGrate MaterialsUsing the Climate of Change module in a lecture-only course allowed me to implement a wide variety of teaching strategies that were effective in promoting engagement. The students were accustomed to an interactive classroom, but expanding to the range of activity types in the module kept the students motivated for the next class and led to broader and more thoughtful participation.
Relationship of InTeGrate Materials to My Course
I implemented the module in a 6-week class starting at the end of week 4. In the 4 weeks of class prior to starting the module, the following topics were covered: origin of the geosphere/hydrosphere/atmosphere, latitude and longitude, history of oceanography, instruments used in oceanography research, evidence for continental drift, Earth structure, evidence for plate tectonics, plate tectonics, marine provinces, marine sediments, properties of seawater, deep ocean circulation, primary productivity and marine food webs, waves, surface currents, coastal features, and the rocky intertidal zone. Students were also responsible for ~75 geographic and physiographic features and are quizzed on these features weekly. The class met for 2 hours and 20 minutes--generally, class meetings were roughly 50% lecture and 50% in-class exercises; hence, my students were accustomed to small-group activities and discussions by the time we got to the Climate of Change module.
Because of the nature of the course (lecture only; not all students enrolled in a lab section), I knew that there would not be enough time to implement the module in its entirety. Specifically, I did not use any of the supplemental case studies (2.2, 3.2, 4.2, and 5.2) in this course.
- The discussion on feedbacks at the end of the class meeting was interesting. When we had finished both feedback loops, I asked if there were any questions or comments. Here is what I got (and not from the students who are the usual verbal participants!):
I used this discussion to explain that climate modeling is extremely complex and that I hoped today had whet their appetites to learn about climate fluctuations in the equatorial Pacific and the North Atlantic next week.
- Student: "But does that mean that the Earth is warming or cooling? In both feedbacks, there is more CO2 in the atmosphere, but you get warmer in one and colder in the other."
- Another student, before I had a chance to respond: "It depends on where you are. The positive feedback happened in a place with ice, and the negative feedback happened in a place that was warmer to begin with."
- Another student: "It just seems like there are so many different things happening in the system at the same time."
- Another student: "Doesn't that mean that there's positive and negative feedback happening at the same time?"
- Another student: "Then which one wins?"
- I used the following Unit 1-related exam question (from our embedded assessments): Sketch and label a feedback diagram associated with increasing the level of atmospheric carbon dioxide. Indicate on the diagram if the feedback from increasing carbon dioxide is positive or negative. Explain the importance of feedbacks in understanding uncertainties in projections of future climate. Student responses to this question allowed me to identify misconceptions about feedbacks (for example, belief that positive feedback happens only at high latitudes and negative feedback happens only at low latitudes) and resulted in changes in the way I taught about feedback in subsequent iterations of module implementation.
- I used the following Unit 2-related exam question (from our embedded assessments): Does the ocean surface anomaly map display El Niño, ENSO normal, or La Niña conditions and how do you know? Where will precipitation fall if these anomalous temperatures remain in place? While some students incorrectly identified the map as illustrating ENSO normal conditions, the majority of students selected El Niño and correctly characterized the expected precipitation patterns.
- During class, my students were able to identify which year was most anomalous and describe what the anomaly looked like with respect to SST and precipitation in the western and eastern Pacific. They offered the following during the postactivity discussion without being prompted:
- Warm SST seems to correlate with greater rainfall (they followed up by attributing this to areas with relative warm SST having low pressure systems).
- Cooler SST seems to correlate with less rainfall (they followed up by attributing this to areas with relative cool SST having high pressure systems).
- The most anomalous years are 1997 and 1998 (they speculated that this could be an El Niño event and wondered if the Mayans died off because of El Niño).
- During class, students' color maps accurately characterized SST and precipitation differences between ENSO normal, positive, and negative conditions in the equatorial Pacific. Students also made accurate predictions about productivity variations in the eastern Pacific during ENSO normal, positive, and negative conditions.
- I used questions 1 and 2 from the Unit 4 assessments on my final exam.
- During class, students demonstrated an understanding of how to read and interpret an albedo plot and an albedo anomaly map.
- I used the following Unit 5-related exam question (from our embedded assessments): Humans have the power to affect climate change by: A. decreasing the amount of incoming solar radiation, which causes cooling. B. increasing the amount of incoming solar radiation, which causes warming. C. adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, which cause warming. D. adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, which cause cooling. E. no possible means. 87% of students answered the question correctly.
- At the end of the game, I asked each team to tell me what their model predicted about how global temperature would change after 500 years. 5 out of 6 tables predicted global warming, and five out of six tables predicted global cooling. Each group provided feedback-based justifications for their predictions.
- During class, students provided thoughtful responses to the gallery walk questions.
- During class, I used question 2 from the Unit 6 assessments and found that students were able to distinguish between mitigation and adaptation strategies.
Using the Climate of Change materials has had a tremendous impact on the way that I teach about the climate system. One of the most effective characteristics of the module was the variety of teaching strategies (gallery walks, discussions, small-group work, modified jigsaw activities, games, etc.) utilized. This kept my students interested in what they were going to learn during their next class meeting and how they were going to learn it. The use of authentic atmospheric, ocean, ice, and sociological data was an effective way to allow students to draw their own conclusions about climate change and get them thinking about uncertainty and complexity in climate science. Since initial testing of the Climate of Change module, I have continued to incorporate parts of the module into my courses.