Cindy Shellito, Earth Sciences, University of Northern Colorado


This course introduces students to the methods of paleoclimatology and provides a survey of major climatic events over the history of the Earth. The course incorporates journal articles and web resources to teach students through lectures and in-class activities.

Course Type: Upper Level
Course Size:

Course Format:
Lecture only

Institution Type:
University with graduate programs, primarily masters programs

Course Context:

This is an upper-division course consisting of 3 lecture periods a week. Students are required to have taken at least one earth science lab class (introductory geology or meteorology) prior to enrolling. Students enrolled in the course are completing degrees in Earth Science, with emphases is meteorology, geology, environmental science, or earth science secondary education.

Course Content:

The course surveys major events in the history of Earth's climate, and methods of interpreting the geological, paleontological, and paleobotanical climate proxies. There is also an introduction to numerical modeling of climate, and a discussion of the utility of using models to reconstruct past climates. Students analyze paleoclimate data available online and use models to examine climate dynamics.

Course Goals:

  • Students will be able to use their understanding of the factors that affect climate and the interactions between various components of the climate system to make inferences from paleoclimate data regarding mechanisms for change.
  • Students will explain and give examples of how feedbacks in the climate system can amplify or negate climate change.
  • Students will identify which tools for paleoclimatology research they would use to gain information about the climate of a particular time period, and what information they would extract with a particular tool.
  • Students will explain how present day climate change compares to climate change during key periods of Earth's history, and how the past can inform our understanding of the present and future.
  • Students will consider and evaluate their beliefs about the role of facts, theories, laws, and hypotheses in science
  • Students will have an increased sense of stewardship toward the earth
  • Students will be able to analyze paleoclimate data for patterns, trends. They will access (i.e. from web) and analyze climate and paleoclimate data sets in various formats (tabulated, graphical, simple strat. column, satellite photo, etc.) to make logical inferences about climate and environmental change from the data.
  • Students will access climate model data and make logical inferences about climate sensitivity from the results. They will describe inherent uncertainties in the results and be able to compare with proxy data to assess validity.
  • Students will know how to read a scientific article and be able to articulate the primary methods and most important results presented in the article.
  • Students will write a research paper
  • Students will present a poster of their work to their peers for review and feedback

Course Features:

The critical feature of the class is a term research project. I provide students with a list of possible topics, all of which involve either an examination of paleoclimate data online, or the use of a numerical climate model. In preparation for the assignment, students are introduced to a range of proxy data used to infer past climates, and are provided with an introduction to numerical models. Students must apply what they have learned in the course to complete their research project. At the end of the semester, students submit a research paper, and present a poster, based on their work at the departmental poster session.


Key assessment tools in this course include:
  1. Homework: Homework assignments are primarily designed to evaluate skill goals. Specifically, students are evaluated to determine whether they can analyze data, utilize and interpret numerical climate models, or summarize scientific articles. In-class data analysis activities are usually followed by written homework follow-ups that require data synthesis or interpretation.
  2. Informal observation of group and discussion: used as formative assessment
  3. Research paper and poster: The research paper also evaluates whether students have met the skill goals for the class, as the paper requires them to complete a data or model analysis.
  4. Exam questions: Short and long answer written exam questions directly evaluate course content knowledge.
  5. Informal end-of-semester course evaluations: Assessment of attitudinal goals is made through an informal, anonymous course feedback form distributed at the end of the semester.


Syllabus for Paleoclimatology (Microsoft Word 46kB May14 12)

References and Notes:

Study Questions (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 113kB May14 12)
Research Assignment (Microsoft Word 77kB May14 12)