Introducing the Educational Global Climate Model to Cement Climate Change Learning

Drew Fulton Bush, McGill University
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Initial Publication Date: October 24, 2018 | Reviewed: December 10, 2020


These three laboratory activities build student knowledge of anthropogenic global climate change through use of the Columbia University-National Aeronautics Space Administration (NASA) Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) Educational Global Climate Model (EdGCM). They are designed to build student proficiency with each of the major steps used in a climate modeling experiment. The goal is to build student climate modeling skills and knowledge of climate models to enable students to conduct their own climate change research using EdGCM.

Key Questions 
How do scientists research the impact of humans on the global climate? 
How does global climate modeling differ from and rely upon the work of other physical scientists?
In what ways can the methods of climate science help us understand how our own lives impact the global environment?
What limitations does global climate modeling hold as a research tool for understanding and predicting anthropogenic global climate change?

Used this activity? Share your experiences and modifications



Upper-level secondary school, undergraduate, graduate, and can be used for original research purposes by departments lacking large-scale computing resources or scientific programming support. These laboratory activities have been used in Earth System Science, Global Change, and introductory climate change courses.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

  1. Understanding of physical climate science including the greenhouse effect, natural and anthropogenic forcings on the global climate, and differences between weather and climate.
  2. Understanding of basic desktop-based computer programs not including tablet applications.
  3. Basic understanding of the global carbon cycle, the relationship of the ocean to global and regional climate, and how scientists conduct research/use scientific technology.
  4. Basic understanding of the concept of modeled versus observed data.
  5. Experience with point-and-click personal computer use.

How the activity is situated in the course

These three labs are together meant to reinforce student learning as it relates to anthropogenic global climate change through the use of EdGCM. In specific, each lab gives students practical experience with each step of the processes of global climate modeling (setting up scenarios, running the model, post-processing data, and visualizing results). It also prepares students to conduct their own research. These labs can be integrated with a curriculum where students are also learning about climate science and policy through active or inquiry-based teaching methods.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

General Learning Goals

  1. Be able to explain scientific predictions about future global climate changes as they relate to specific regions and places
  2. Gain the scientific process and modeling skills used by climate scientists

Specific Learning Goals 

  1. Explain why climate scientists use global climate models (GCMs)
  2. Describe the forcings and processes that shape the Earth's global climate
  3. Classify the above forcings by their relative role in causing the climatic changes of the past two centuries
  4. Evaluate the evidence of a changing global climate
  5. Create and test a hypothesis using a GCM
  6. Evaluate hypotheses, compare alternatives, and communicate findings
  7. Apply understanding of how climate scientists work to examining erroneous/accurate claims about climate change

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Utilizing Bloom's Taxonomy as a guide (Krathwohl, 2002), these laboratory activities seek to engage students at higher levels of learning that include applying (e.g., execution and implementation of course ideas), analyzing (e.g., differentiating, organizing, and attributing), evaluating (e.g., checking and critiquing), and creating (e.g., generating, planning, and producing). Because students practice these skills with a numerical model, they necessarily must formulate hypotheses and research questions, analyze and manipulate data on multiple variables, evaluate differing scenarios, and develop their own modeling process.

Other skills goals for this activity

Students gain proficiency in writing clear and specific answers to both questions in laboratory handouts and reflection questions posed in the evaluations section of this activity. They also will learn to operate complex science education technology that a uses graphical user interface to replicate the actual climate modeling processes of researchers. Finally, students will learn teamwork through group research and gain skills in utilizing online resources in their own research.

Description and Teaching Materials

Each lab handout describes in detail what students are doing for each of three different EdGCM lab sessions. Instructions for instructors are given in "Attachment 1: Implementation Instructions for Teachers." Detailed resources are provided both in the lab handouts and in this activity write-up for installing and using the software, framing student research questions and guiding student learning with EdGCM.

Attachment 1: Implementation Instructions for Teachers (Acrobat (PDF) 45kB Sep1 18)
Attachment 2: Laboratory Handout 1 (Acrobat (PDF) 64kB Sep1 18)
Attachment 3: Lab Handout 2 (Acrobat (PDF) 106kB Sep1 18)
Attachment 4: Lab Handout 3 (Acrobat (PDF) 80kB Sep1 18)
Attachment 5: Rubric for Laboratory Sessions and Each Handout (Acrobat (PDF) 34kB Sep1 18)
Attachment 6: Data Sites and Resources for Framing a Research Question (Acrobat (PDF) 38kB Sep1 18)
Attachment 7: Panoply_Manual (Acrobat (PDF) 5.9MB Sep1 18)
Attachment 8: EVA_Manual_v1.6 (Acrobat (PDF) 2.7MB Sep1 18)
Lab 1 (PowerPoint 2007 (.pptx) 2.9MB Sep1 18)
Lab 2 (PowerPoint 2007 (.pptx) 2.4MB Sep1 18)
Lab 3 (PowerPoint 2007 (.pptx) 6.1MB Sep1 18)
A Temperature and Precipitation Exercise with Absolute and Anomaly Data in the Northeast United States (PowerPoint 2007 (.pptx) 4.6MB Sep1 18)
Mini Exercise on Anomoly Maps (PowerPoint 2007 (.pptx) 1.5MB Sep1 18)

Teaching Notes and Tips

Teaching Notes and Tips
Each laboratory activity requires the instructor to have installed EdGCM and ensured that it is working properly on the computers to be used in class. Furthermore, instructors should check the EdGCM website to ensure they've installed necessary patches for their Windows and macOS operating systems. Finally, instructors must also ensure the visualization software is chosen appropriately based on the computers used as well. Some operating systems will be better suited for EdGCM's internal visualizer, Eva, while others should be pointed toward Panoply. Both types of software are downloaded when you get EdGCM. Please note that if you are using Panoply in your class, you will need to use Microsoft Excel to plot time series graphs manually.

For each lab, adequate time must be given for students to explore the model themselves either in pairs or in groups. Instructors will need to closely supervise work to ensure that students are following along. Instructors may also wish to display their own progress through the lab on a screen visible to the class. Certain moments in each lab (at the end of each section) require the instructor to convene the whole group and summarize and solicit findings. More detailed instructions for instructors are given in "Attachment 1: Implementation Instructions for Teachers." The exercises discussed here are for EdGCM. This model is the older of the educational global climate models developed by researchers at NASA GISS. Some instructors may wish to consult other activity guides for usage of the newer online model called EzGCM.

Data, Tools and Logistics
Required Tools
The EdGCM software suite runs on both Macs and PCs, though java 1.3 must be installed in order to run the included mapping and plotting software. Also, a couple of utilities are currently Mac-only.

Minimum System Requirements
Macintosh: G4 processor or better running Mac OS X 10.3.9 or higher.
Windows PCs: Any computer running Windows XP/Vista/7. 

Logistical Challenges
EdGCM is designed to run on both Macs and Windows PCs. No linux version is available. Newer computers run the experiments much faster than older computers. A new basic consumer level PC or Mac would run the GCM at about 200 simulated years/day. Many newer computers are "dual-core" or greater. Such computers can run one GCM simulation per core at full speed.


Evaluation Goals
The goal of evaluations are to ensure that students have gained the requisite knowledge and skills to operate EdGCM in their own anthropogenic global climate change research. They consist of 1) Reflections for the end of each lab period provided below; 2) And, assessment of student lab handouts by the course instructor.

Evaluation Techniques
Each of the below is a prompt for a written student reflection. They should be displayed on a screen visible to all students during the last ten minutes of class. Students should write their name on their reflection and hand it in before leaving.
For Lab 1
First, create a grid with two sections: "Pro" and "Con."
Next, write a list of features from EdGCM that you think fit in each section. (These can be things we discussed about models or anything you noticed today.)
Finally, write down the main thing you learned about global climate models.
For Lab 2
A question I believe EdGCM can answer and that I'm interested in knowing more about is:______________________________
For Lab 3
The biggest problem our group is having on our research project is: __________________
Our group is making the most progress on this part of our project: _________________

Lab Handout Evaluations
Please see "Attachment 5: Rubric for Laboratory Sessions and Each Handout." Each Lab Handout attachment also contains the correct individual answers.

References and Resources


  • Bush, D., Sieber, R., Seiler, G., & Chandler, M. (2016). The teaching of anthropogenic climate change and Earth science via technology-enabled inquiry education. Journal of Geoscience Education, 64(3), 159-174.
  • Bush, D., Sieber, R., Seiler, G. & Chandler, M. (2017). Examining educational climate change technology: How group inquiry work with an authentic scientific instrument alters classroom learning. Journal of Science Education & Technology, 27(2), 147-164.
  • Bush, D., Sieber, R., Seiler, G., Chandler, M. & Chmura, G. L. (Accepted). Bringing climate scientists' tools into classrooms to improve conceptual understanding. Journal of Environmental Studies & Sciences.
  • Hansen, J., Russell, G., Rind, D., Stone, P., Lacis, A., Lebedeff, S., Ruedy, R. & Travis, L. (1983). Efficient three-dimensional global models for climate studies: Models I and II. Monthly Weather Review, 111(4), 609-662.
  • Hansen, J., Sato, M., Karecha, P., Beerling, D., Berner, R., Masson-Delmotte, V., Pagani, M., Raymo, M., Royer, D.L., Zachos, J. (2008) Target Atmospheric CO2: Where Should Humanity Aim? The Open Atmospheric Science Journal. 2, 217-231.
  • Krathwohl, D. R. (2002). A Revision of Bloom ' s Taxonomy :, 41(4), 212–219.
  • Youngman, B., Chandler, M., Sohl, L., Hafen, M., Ledley, T., Ackerman, S., & Kluge, S. (2015). Envisioning Climate Change Using a Global Climate Model. Earth Exploration Toolbook. The Science Education Resource Center at Carleton College, Norh Field, MN.

Online Resources 
EdGCM Video Tutorials
EdGCM Documentation Site
EdGCM Manual,
EdGCM Quick Start Guide,
EdGCM Teacher's Guide to Exploring Future Climate Change,
Earth Exploration Toolbook: Envisioning Climate Change Using A Global Climate Model,
Weather and Climate Basics,

Glossary of Terms 

Climate Forcing : A variable that impacts climate, usually the focus of the climate experiment. Sets into motion the change.

Climate Feedback: An element of the climate system altered by the climate forcing, which further amplifies or dampens the original effect. A feedback is said to be positive if it amplifies the effects, and is negative if it dampens them. Climate changes caused by positive feedbacks are often greater than those due to the original forcing.

Global Climate Model (GCM): Computer model that simulates Earth's climate system in 3-D.

Grid Cells : The 3-D elements into which the GCM's atmosphere, oceans and land surface are divided. The boundaries of grid cells are commonly expressed in degrees of latitude, longitude, and height.

Educational Global Climate Model (EdGCM): A suite of software that allows users to set up and run a NASA climate model, as well as analyze and visualize the resulting data through a point-and-click interface.

Panoply: NetCDF Visualization Software: Software for making maps and line plots of the EdGCM model data and any NetCDF file.

Experiment: One or more climate model simulations that are undertaken to test a hypothesis, make a discovery, or explore physical processes.

Fundamental Physics Equations: The essential, basic equations that calculate the Temperature, Pressure, Winds and Humidity at every grid cell in the GCM. They include four conservation equations (Mass, Moisture, Momentum, Energy) and the Equation of State.

Parameterizations: Additional equations used by the GCM to calculate variables based on relationships derived from observations, experiments, or theoretical analysis.

Resolution: The number of grid cells per unit area. A higher resolution model contains more grid cells per unit area.

Scenario: A set of conditions defining the characteristics of a simulation, including the geographic features as well as the state of climate forcings through time.

Future Climate Scenario: A scenario derived from social, economic, and population growth predictions as well as fuel sources and advances in technology. Used with a GCM to examine the range of possible future climates

Past Climate Scenario, Hindcasting or Calibration: A scenario whose set of conditions was derived from observations of past time periods. The observations are said to be "instrumental" if they were made using modern meteorological devices, or "proxy," if they were derived using geological methods. Hindcasting and calibration is the process of checking the models accuracy by running it on such data.

Simulation or Run: The set of physical conditions and control parameters (such as the period of time to be simulated) that define an individual scenario setup for the GCM experiment.

Boundary Conditions: Inputs that do not change over the course of the simulation (e.g., Topography, land/sea distribution, land ice extent, and vegetation).

Initial Conditions: Inputs prescribed at the beginning of a run that changes as the simulation proceeds (e.g., Greenhouse gas trends, solar trends, sea surface temperatures).

Empirical models: Are built from observations and/or experimental studies, allow you to study components of a system but not processes and are restricted to past records.

Numerical models: Use fundamental physics to simulate climate, allow you to study both components and processes within the system, and can be used for past, present, and future. (A GCM is a numerical model.)