Climate Change, Communities, and Public Planning: A Problem-Based Learning Activity


In this problem-based learning activity, students develop a case study that "puts a human face" on the effects of global climate change (GCC) on a particular community in the United States. Students work in teams to discover cultural, economic, and natural features of the community as well as challenges presented by GCC. Student teams share their findings with the class and present several options for responding to GCC challenges within the community. The activity concludes with an opportunity to reflect on the effects of GCC at the local level.

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Learning Goals

This activity introduces students to challenges presented by global climate change at the local level. Through the investigation of the effects of GCC within a particular community, it is anticipated that students will gain an interest in examining, and working to mitigate, the effects of GCC within their own community.

This activity:

  • Engages students in civil discourse/ communications that lead to more effective decisions
  • Advances student literacy around sustainability issues
  • Promotes creative visioning around sustainable futures

Higher-order thinking skills developed by this activity include critical thinking and synthesis of solutions informed by data.

Context for Use

This activity is appropriate for college students with limited biology/ecology knowledge. It has been used in a class populated by first-semester biology majors and non-majors. This is a problem-based learning activity that involves student research and reporting conducted in teams of 3-5 students. While assignments for 8 student teams are provided, this activity can be easily adapted for use with smaller classes. Access to the internet (via classroom computers or students' personal laptops) is required for the research portion of the activity. Approximately two classroom hours are required to complete this activity.

Description and Teaching Materials

Instructors may want to begin this activity with a discussion of the role that case studies play in enhancing the understanding of complex challenges. It may be useful to provide students with example case studies to examine before or during this discussion. Prior to beginning the research portion of this activity, the instructor should divide the class into teams of 3-5 students, each of which will be assigned a region within the United States (from the list found of the attached student activity worksheet) to study. Teams will conduct online research to identify and learn about a particular community found within their assigned region. Students should use the questions found on the student activity worksheet to guide their investigations. After student teams have completed the research phase of the activity, they will prepare presentations that will educate their classmates about their chosen community, the GCC challenges faced by the community, and their proposed response options. Non-presenting students should be encouraged to ask questions and take notes during the presentations, as the presented information will help them formulate responses to the reflection questions. Following the presentations, the instructor may assign the reflection questions for homework. Alternatively, these questions may be used to guide a classroom discussion about the local effects of climate change.

Student handout for Climate Change and Public Planning activity (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 27kB Aug1 13)

Rubric for Climate Change and Public Policy activity (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 14kB Aug1 13)

Teaching Notes and Tips

Instructors should emphasize the value of case-studies in making complex, and often impersonal and abstract, challenges much more personal. As instructors circulate throughout the room during the research and case study development phases of the activity, they should confirm that students are using identified community features to inform their analysis of GCC challenges and identification of response options. As students prepare to enter the reflection phase of the activity, they should be encouraged to carefully consider the information presented by their classmates as they respond to the reflection questions.


The instructor can informally assess team productivity and progress toward learning objectives by circulating through the classroom during the research and case study development phases of the activity. This will provide opportunity for clarification and redirection as needed. Summative assessment can be conducted during classroom presentations of case studies using a rubric such as the one included in the uploaded materials. A rubric for assessing reflections is also available.

References and Resources - This report prepared by the U.S. Global Change Research Program details predicted impacts of climate change on various regions within the United States.