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« CLEAN Climate Complexity Workshop 2012 Discussions

Complex Topics for our Students  

The theme of this workshop is how best to teach the complexities of the climate system. Are there particular topics or approaches that have created problems for your students? Do they rebel against complexity? Do they just want science to be perfectly black and white?

Or, do you have a method that you've used successfully? Do your students enjoy working with multiple types of data and looking at science from various perspectives?

Use this thread to share both your questions or successful experiences. This is one of the ways that we can all benefit from each others' expertise.

Thanks!

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A difficulty I have noticed more and more in the last couple years is student confusion about the different types of global changes. So for example, students think ozone depletion causes global warming, or that acid precipitation and global warming are both due to increases in the same gases. I'm not sure why, other than they aren't distinguishing things like UV vs. IR (it's all radiation!) and CO2 and SO2 (it's all from burning fossil fuels!). Has anyone else seen this confusion? I'd love to have some advice on dealing with this.

5794:19733

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My students really struggled understanding the Earth's Energy Balance - even after spending a chapter learning about thermodynamics! I'd love to learn how this is being taught as a jigsaw or other activity.

5794:19735

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I teach teachers and have learned that many teachers desire to explore science topics from a systems perspective and to learn methods to teach a systems science perspective to their students. I have been successful using inquiry methods to guide my students to explore multiple climate data sets and analyze the connections among these data sets. For example, how does earth transfer energy back to the atmosphere? How does some of this energy (thermal, for example) impact weather and climate? What is the source of energy that drives the water cycle? There is a distinct annual rise and fall of atmospheric CO2 levels; what might be a mechanism that drives this fluctuation? What are the ocean's/forests'/soils'/fossil fuel burnings' impacts on atmospheric levels of CO2? etc. Examining several sets of data and looking at the connections among the data sets and the Earth's systems is eye-opening.

5794:19764

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I've found that students can understand the concept of positive and negative feedback loops when given some obvious examples. Then by discussing the strength and timing of such feedback loops, they can get a handle on causation and complex interactions. That seems to be a good approach to teaching climate complexity.

5794:19780

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Lately, I've been thinking that there are gaps in understanding system dynamics, which, if filled, might help us in teaching and learning climate science. Maybe system dynamics and climate science could be intertwined in learning activities. Some basic misunderstandings of how the combination of inflow and outflow affect stocks show up in, for example, (1) student models of the greenhouse effect in which solar energy comes into the system, but little or no energy ever leaves, and (2) explanations of the annual cycle of atmospheric CO2 which call on photosynthesis to draw CO2 out of the atmosphere, but "less photosynthesis" (i.e. a lower outflow rate, but still no inflow) to put it back in. These models, which ignore one of inflow or outflow, lead to thinking like "if we just stabilize our rate of input of CO2 to the atmosphere, we'll stabilize CO2 concentrations", without regard for the relationship between inflow and outflow. As others have said (wish I remembered a citation right now!), turning down the faucet still fills a plugged bathtub, just more slowly.

5794:19829

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The presentations so far have been really interesting, but I can imagine students not seeing the big picture on this. Several presentations have addressed (apparent) exceptions to the overall patterns as being important for our understanding. For example, we know that climate mirrors CO2 because we have these graphs that show temp and CO2 closely matched except for points A, B and C, so let's talk about what was different at those points and show how "the exceptions prove the rule." I think the students would get bogged down in memorizing the facts about A, B, and C, and possibly end up thinking the exceptions "prove" there is no climate change, or that scientists are just confused and have data supporting both points of view. I always tell my students at the beginning and the end of a lecture like that what we are doing (i.e., overall picture, but with caveats that help us finetune our understanding), but they don't necessarily listen/hear/understand.

5794:19888

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Originally Posted by Andrea Bixler


A difficulty I have noticed more and more in the last couple years is student confusion about the different types of global changes. So for example, students think ozone depletion causes global warming, or that acid precipitation and global warming are both due to increases in the same gases. I'm not sure why, other than they aren't distinguishing things like UV vs. IR (it's all radiation!) and CO2 and SO2 (it's all from burning fossil fuels!). Has anyone else seen this confusion? I'd love to have some advice on dealing with this.


Yes Andrea, those misconceptions are all really common ones. My hunch is that they are getting all the different types of global change mixed up when they hear about it in the news. I have found that students often come in with those misconceptions, but they are pretty straightforward to unravel once you address each topic in turn. Concept sketching really helps, as do dynamic activities where they start with index cards with various topics on each card (just one topic per card, such as methane; CFCs; melting permafrost; fossil carbon; etc) and they arrange the cards into processes. Some cards will go together and others belong in a separate area. Students can do their arranging on a lab table, and then groups of students can visit each others' cards and add/subtract/rearrange. Ultimately, all of the processes could be linked together in a global system.

Kai's talk today had students work with boxes of balls where each box represented a carbon source or sink, and ping pong balls represented carbon. Students moved the balls back and forth to different boxes to match the global carbon cycle. I thought this was a neat approach.

Both of these approaches are active, in that the students work with something physical. This is helpful because atmospheric gases are an abstract concept. I'd be interested in hearing what other approaches people have used.

5794:19925

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I was surprised at the C confusion that Kai mentioned. It was an eye opener for me, I’ve never thought to ask my students about different types of carbon! When I teach the C-cycle I usually use a version of the “Incredible Journey” by Jennifer Ceven, Project Wet. It’s a bit young for college students, but it’s clear. Depending upon the class you can enhance it by asking about the form of C that’s being moved around and/or how the movement is occurring. Arizona State has a C board game which looks interesting. I’ve never used it. Has anyone used either of these activities?

5794:19977

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I have found that students have difficulty constructively navigating the ideas of equilibrium and change while working with toy climate models. I liked the suggestion of the sink activity which could provide students with a simple, tactile model in which a new equilibrium is reached but the equilibrium water level has changed. I would love to find out more about existing activities which put the materials in the students hands and guides them in an exploration of equilibrium and change in this 'simple' system. I would also be interested in working with someone to develop/extend such an activity.

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