Allison Dunn: Using Earth's Thermostat in Physical Geography at Worcester State University
About this Course
An introductory course with mostly non-majors, but also serves as an important recruitment tool to our major.
Syllabus for Allison Dunn's Physical Geography class (Acrobat (PDF) 393kB Jun21 16)
Capturing Students' Interest with Real Data
I teach Physical Geography, a survey class that introduces students to the atmosphere, hydrosphere, lithosphere, and biosphere. It's a lot of material to cover in one semester, and it can be tempting to use a lot of lecture to cover as much ground as possible. From past experience, however, I know my students get a lot more out of the course and the content when they have the opportunity to participate in projects that involve active learning. I incorporated the Earth's Thermostat module in lieu of my typical coverage of chapters on Earth's energy balance, temperature, and climate change. My students really responded to the in-class activities, and you could hear an excited buzz as different groups worked their way through the material for each activity. I think this module is especially powerful because it lets students directly engage with the data behind a major societal issue (climate change). By working with the data itself, instead of reading about it in a text, they felt a greater ownership and understanding of this challenge facing our society.
My Experience Teaching with InTeGrate Materials
I teach a 75-minute class session. The module is designed to be easily split to fit a 75 minute period; e.g. instructors could present all of Unit 1 and the first half of Unit 2 in a session.
I did not present all six units of the module consecutively, but broke them up to fit better with the general course sequence. I did not, however, present them out of order.
Relationship of InTeGrate Materials to my Course
My course is a semester in length. The materials in Earth's Thermostat were presented in the third, fourth, and sixth week of the semester, interspersed among other material. Prior to the module, students had already learned basic material about systems thinking, maps, the Earth-Sun system, and the atmosphere. After covering Units 1-4, we covered climate change in more detail. The students had their first exam, and Units 5-6 followed shortly afterwards. Note that this sequence refers to the pilot version of the module. In the final version of the module, Units 4 and 5 are a two-day sequence (allowing instructors to go more in depth on radiation balance), and therefore could not be separated.
AssessmentsDuring the course of the module, I used the following assessments:
- Homework assignment after Unit 1. Students had some trouble calculating effective temperature, but we went over it in class.
- Homework assignment after Unit 4: I assigned the short research assignment on a historic volcanic eruption. I think they enjoyed this assignment and were surprised by what they learned. We have adjusted this assignment so that students are not guided towards what types of resources to use; we instead just ask them to evaluate the credibility of each resource at the end. This will provide a nice segue to discuss credible scientific sources in Unit 6.
- Summative assessment after Unit 6: For the most part, I was happy with what my students achieved with this assignment. This is an introductory course and most students are not science majors, and being asked to do work like this represented a big leap from what is typical in most survey courses. We have adjusted this assignment in the final version to provide more guidance to students as they develop a conceptual model.
OutcomesI really hoped that using the InTeGrate materials would give students a better understanding of how Earth's atmosphere and climate system worked. The hope is that this would help them feel more personally invested in the societal challenge of climate change.
In terms of results, I think it was a mixed bag. During the module, I felt I was getting good feedback and responses (e.g. students correctly interpreting the effect of greenhouse gases by looking at transmission spectra). In the end, however, I'm not sure how much they really retained. On their final exams, I was still getting a lot of answers confusing ozone hole and climate change. I think they did get a reasonably good working knowledge of how volcanoes influence climate, but the connections between the radiation concepts and circulation concepts were hard for them to make.
One bright spot: I used the toolkit for analyzing my students' pre- and post- attitudinal survey results and found that my students did make significant gains in terms of their attitudes towards environmental issues and sustainability compared to their answers at the start of the semester.