How Can Models Be Used To Study Climate Change?

This activity is the work of:
Ben Fackler-Adams, Skagit Valley College, Mt. Vernon WA
Paul Frazey, Whatcom Community College, Bellingham WA
Emily Borda, Western Washington University, Bellingham WA
Sarah Julin, Whatcom Community College, Bellingham WA
Andrew Boudreaux, Western Washington Univ., Bellingham WA

It is an activity developed as part of the Chemistry For the Informed Citizen project that is funded by National Science Foundation, Grant # DUE-0737551.

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Students utilize ice core data to develop a simple climate model, test it and then analyze, through reading IPCC materials, what other variables might need to be included in a model that more accurately predicts climate response to forcings. They are then asked to reflect on the use of models in scientific inquiry and on climate skeptics view of climate models.

Used this activity? Share your experiences and modifications

Learning Goals

The goals of this activity are to:
1. provide the learner with the opportunity to apply and practice modeling and nature of science concepts (inductive and deductive reasoning) using an issue (global warming) that has relevance to their lives and that they hear a lot about in the media.
2. provide opportunities to practice using chemistry concepts in the context of greenhouse effect and global climate change.
3. foster understanding that scientific modeling is a means of making predictions about how a system, even a complex system, will change with a high degree of confidence.
4. provide insight into – and perspective on the nature of the debate about global climate change, and the degree to which arguments in the debate are scientific or not.
This activity provides students opportunities to engage in data analysis, develop and apply models, and apply concepts in new contexts.

The activity addresses sustainability obliquely in that the issue of global climate change is directly related to our unsustainable use of fossil fuels.

Context for Use

This activity is part of a suite of CHEM101 college-level inquiry-based classroom/laboratory activities developed as part of the Chemistry For The Informed Citizen curriculum. The activity is designed to take 3 hours of class/lab time with the students doing an additional 1 hour pre-lab and 2 hour lab homework. The lab occurs at a point in the curriculum in which they have done reading and analysis of McComas' "Ten Myths of Science" article, explored the nature of scientific models in simple chemical systems, read various parts of IPCC 4th Assessment Report in order to become familiar with the greenhouse effect and global climate change. The activity has been used in small (15 to 25) and large (70 to 100) classes with minor adaptations. While difficult, it would be possible to use this as a stand-alone activity if it were modified to exclude reference to prior activities in the curriculum, and the students had prior preparation in concepts of scientific modeling.

Description and Teaching Materials

This lab activity is part of the inquiry-based curriculum from the Chemistry For The Informed Citizen project (NSF, Grant # DUE-0737551). As of Summer 2012 it is still in development and feedback is welcome. The curriculum focuses on students developing a small particle model of matter that relates macroscopic observations to sub-microscopic processes, and has a through-going strand that focuses on the use of models in scientific inquiry. Exploration of climate science and global climate change is one of the main topics used to develop understanding of both chemical concepts and scientific inquiry.

This activity asks students to:

1. Use the ice core data to develop a simple mathematical model of the relationship between atmospheric CO2 concentration and global average temperature.
2. Use the model to predict the average global temperature for a recent year for which there is data and then compare their result with actual values.
3. Assess the accuracy of the model and, using various resources from IPCC 4th Assessment Report (2007), analyze any shortcomings of their model and explore what other factors might need to be included in the model to improve its ability to explain climate variability.
4. Use their simple model to predict the value of global average temperature for predicted CO2 concentration levels at 2100 under one or more forecast scenarios.
5. Reflect on the effectiveness of models in predicting future climate in particular, and as a tool for scientific inquiry in general.

Climate Modeling Activity: Pre-Lab, Lab, Lab Homework (Microsoft Word 427kB Jul9 12)

Teaching Notes and Tips

In considering whether to use this activity please be aware that it is strongly based in the constructivist mode. The curriculum as a whole and the activity utilize essentially no lecturing. As a result, by the time they get to this activity (~3 weeks into the term) they are well versed in the process of working through the materials with their group members and sharing their thinking with the instructor and the class as a whole. In addition, the mathematical aspects of this activity can be very challenging for the under-prepared student. A primer on the concept of linear regression and significance of the R2 correlation might be needed depending on your student population. If adapting this activity to your needs, it will be important to give the students sufficient prior information about the nature of scientific models that they can apply them to completing modeling activities here and to reaching conclusions about the effectiveness of models in understanding climate science.


The inquiry-based approach utilized here involves multiple check in points where the instructor or TA question groups of students about their conclusions about a particular portion of the activity (e.g. at the bottom of p. 7 & p. 14). These "interviews" provide the instructor with effective formative assessment of the student's progress through the curriculum. The "Lab Homework" is collected and corrected as a means of summative assessment.

References and Resources

The activity makes extensive use of the IPCC 4th Assessment Report: