Getting inside the black box

Phillip G. Resor
Wesleyan University,
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In this problem set students apply the finite difference method to develop a simple box model and then explore the impact of anthropogenic changes to the modeled system.

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Learning Goals

At the end of the activity students:
- be able to create a box model from a description of an appropriate system
- be able to recognize and describe reservoirs and fluxes in the system
- be able to implement the model using MATLAB using the finite difference method
- use their model to explore impacts of changes in the system and to discuss systems concepts such as perturbations and equilibrium

Context for Use

This problem set is the first MATLAB-based activity in a course on earth and environmental modeling at Wesleyan University. I have taught the course to a class of ~25 students. The class is designed for upper level science majors (junior/senior) with a background in calculus and some experience with topics in earth and/or environmental sciences.

This problem set is meant to introduce programming in MATLAB as well as the use of the finite difference method in a course on earth and environmental modeling. It follows an initial exploration of systems dynamics concepts using a visual programming language (STELLA).

The problem set is designed to be completed in one week, including an in-class introduction, a 50-minute work in-class work session, and a literature discussion.

Description and Teaching Materials

During the first 50-minute class of the week students are introduced to the finite difference method and MATLAB programming. During the second class they are introduced to MATLAB and begin the problem set in class. During the third class they discuss recent papers on the relevant modeling problem (Phosphorus loading).
student handout for problem set (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 122kB Oct5 16)

Teaching Notes and Tips

The activity currently uses Phosphorus in the ocean as a case study. Another possible case study would be CO2 in the atmophere.


Grading of problem set and Friday discussion participation.

References and Resources