Instructor Materials: Overview of the Earth's Thermostat Module
Module Summative Assessment: Students will generate, using geoscience data, a conceptual model that predicts changes to earth's climate due to shifts in energy fluxes and feedbacks within the Earth system following a Toba-scale volcanic eruption, and the potential societal impacts of such an eruption.
In this two week module, students develop a conceptual model of Earth's energy balance and climate system. The topic and its societal relevance are introduced through student-centered exploration of the global temperature record since 1880. This module is designed for intro science courses that address Earth's climate system and/or climate change, including intro geoscience, environmental science, Earth system science, climate science, meteorology, or physical geography. The module assumes a high school or college-level background in basic math and science and is suitable for use in 2-year or 4-year colleges. The module, or individual units, could be adapted for high school environmental science courses or as an introduction in more advanced college climate science courses.
Unit 1Energy, Space, and Earth's Effective Temperature
In this unit, students are introduced to the global temperature record, learn about solar and blackbody radiation, and investigate how solar irradiance may affect Earth's temperature.
This unit consists of two small group activities:
- Activity 1 investigates the global temperature record since 1880 and examines trends and patterns.
- Activity 2 investigates patterns in solar irradiance and evaluates whether they are linked to the temperature record.
There is an accompanying PowerPoint that guides both the activities and discussion. The PowerPoint also contains introductory slides regarding the module as a whole and blackbody radiation.
There is a take-home assessment that builds on the material covered in the activities. At the end of the assessment, the students determine what the temperature of the Earth should be based on incoming solar energy, providing a launching point for Unit 2.
Unit 2The Earth's Atmosphere and its Influence on Temperature
In this unit, students are introduced to the atmosphere, its composition, the way the atmosphere affects Earth's surface temperature, and examine the potential radiative forcings behind Earth's recent temperature changes.
This unit contains two small group activities:
- Students compare the idealized versus actual graphs of Earth's radiation spectra to visualize the greenhouse effect.
- Students analyze atmospheric CO2 data and determine how it has been changing in recent years.
There is an accompanying PowerPoint to guide the activities and discussion, as well as to fill in additional information as needed (on the role of aerosols, other greenhouse gases, etc.).
There is a take-home assessment to expand upon material from the class. One aspect of this assessment links the changes in atmospheric CO2 covered in Unit 2 with the changes in temperature observed in Unit 1.
Unit 3Energy Flows and Feedback Processes
In this unit, simple models of the climate system are used to introduce students to radiative forcing, the fingerprint response of different climate forcing mechanisms, and climate feedback processes.
- Students compare and contrast the response of the climate system to different radiative forcing mechanisms.
- Students use causal loop diagrams to analyze climate feedback processes.
- Students will learn to distinguish the fingerprint response of greenhouse gas variations, solar variations, and volcanic aerosols through the use of a simple energy balance model.
Unit 4Earth's Radiation Balance: A map and graph-based jigsaw (Part 1)
In this unit, students are introduced to spatial variations in climate change impacts and begin a map-based exploration of the global climate system.
The unit contains two main components:
- Students explore the global impacts of climate change and how maps can be used to effectively communicate these patterns through a guided class discussion.
- Students work in small groups to analyze one of three data maps derived from NASA's ERBE (Earth's Radiation Budget Experiment) to interpret geographic patterns, infer underlying causes of these patterns using knowledge accumulated in previous units, and create annotated maps that clearly illustrate their observations and inferences.
This unit is part of a jigsaw activity, a form of cooperative learning, where students work in small teams on separate but related tasks (in this case interpreting one of the data maps) and are then assigned to new groups consisting of members of each specialty team where they synthesize their observations (in Unit 5). Student handouts and PowerPoint slides guide the introductory discussion and activity.
Unit 5Earth's Radiation Balance: A map and graph-based jigsaw (Part 2)
In this unit, students complete the jigsaw activity begun in Unit 4, creating graph and map-based concept sketches illustrating the global radiation balance.
- Students work in synthesis groups to summarize their specialty group observations and infer regions of radiation excess and deficit in graph and map forms.
- Student concept sketches are used to facilitate a whole-class discussion of the global radiation balance.
- Students participate in a class discussion of how atmospheric circulation acts to balance the radiation budget and the impacts of a changing climate on other earth systems.
Student handouts and PowerPoint slides guide the discussion and activity. An optional activity (below) may be used in place of the final whole class discussion for instructors who have the time and interest to explore atmospheric circulation in greater depth.
Optional ActivityCirculation in the Atmosphere - A Map and Cross-Section Based Jigsaw
In this optional activity, students analyze maps of wind patterns from three levels in the atmosphere in order to infer global atmospheric circulation patterns and their role in balancing the radiation budget they established in Units 4 and 5.
- In Part 1, students work in small specialty groups to interpret a map of the wind field from one altitude (pressure level) of the atmosphere.
- In Part 2, students regroup into synthesis groups where they first explain their specialty map to the group and then work together to create concept sketches that integrate a map and cross section to illustrate atmospheric circulation and its relationship to the global radiation budget.
Unit 6Capstone: A modern catastrophic volcanic eruption?
Students complete the module capstone project in this unit: "What if there is a very large volcanic eruption in 2020?" It is expected that students spend approximately 2 hours after this session to develop and summarize a conceptual model to explore plausible ramifications to Earth's climate, society, and life.
- Students identify and explain important climatic and societal features of a significant post-1800 volcanic eruption.
- Students work in groups to summarize and share key findings. These findings provide a basis for their conceptual model development.
- Students design a conceptual model to estimate the climatic and societal implication of a large Toba-type volcanic eruption in the year 2020.
- Students exhibit their systems thinking ability and communication skills in the description and analysis of their conceptual model implications.
Students come to class prepared to discuss their assigned post-1800 volcanic eruption and then work in groups developing an executive summary of their eruption. Each group reports their key findings to the class. An interactive lecture and discussion wrap up this session by reviewing concept maps and causal loop diagrams, and describing and discussing conceptual model design.
Making the Module Work
To adapt all or part of the Earth's Thermostat module for your classroom you will also want to read through
- Instructor Stories, which detail how the Earth's Thermostat module was adapted for use at three different institutions, as well as our guide to
- Adapting InTeGrate Modules and Courses for Your Classroom, which outlines how to effectively use InTeGrate modules and courses.