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Using the Very, Very Simple Climate Model in the Classroom

Randy Russell, Lisa Gardiner, Windows to the Universe

This is a teaching activity in which students learn about the connection between CO2 emissionS, CO2 concentration, and average global temperatures. Through a simple online model, students learn about the relationship between these and learn about climate modeling while predicting temperature change over the 21st century.

Activity takes about two class periods plus an additional two periods for assessment if included. Computer access is necessary.

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Greenhouse Gases
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Greenhouse Gas Emissions
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Grade Level

Middle (6-8)
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High School (9-12)
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Ideal for middle school students, could also be used as a brief intro to climate modeling at high school or a homework assignment.

Climate Literacy
About Teaching Climate Literacy

Observations, experiments, and theory are used to construct and refine computer models
About Teaching Principle 5
Other materials addressing 5c
Increased GHG concentrations in atmosphere will remain high for centuries and affect future climate
About Teaching Principle 6
Other materials addressing 6b

Energy Literacy

Environmental quality is impacted by energy choices.
Other materials addressing:
7.3 Environmental quality.
Greenhouse gases affect energy flow through the Earth system.
Other materials addressing:
2.6 Greenhouse gases affect energy flow.

Excellence in Environmental Education Guidelines

1. Questioning, Analysis and Interpretation Skills:G) Drawing conclusions and developing explanations
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G) Drawing conclusions and developing explanations.
1. Questioning, Analysis and Interpretation Skills:F) Working with models and simulations
Other materials addressing:
F) Working with models and simulations.
2. Knowledge of Environmental Processes and Systems:2.1 The Earth as a Physical System:A) Processes that shape the Earth
Other materials addressing:
A) Processes that shape the Earth.

Notes From Our Reviewers The CLEAN collection is hand-picked and rigorously reviewed for scientific accuracy and classroom effectiveness. Read what our review team had to say about this resource below or learn more about how CLEAN reviews teaching materials
Teaching Tips | Science | Pedagogy | Technical Details

Teaching Tips

  • Engages students in thinking about climate models and more specifically what is provided as background for this model. Ideally, students would know something about climate models.
  • Suggestion of how to start lesson: Review notes for the very, very simple climate model and compare to other models.
  • Extension idea: Compare to Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change report.
  • Educator needs to be very careful in using this simple model in class, explain the limitations of models in general without giving students (incorrect) arguments to question the science behind climate change. Use the document in appendix about accuracy and uncertainty in climate models.
  • Using the model with directed questions would be more effective in the real teaching setting. Ideally educator designs a worksheet with student-centered questions (especially important for middle school students).
  • Students with low math skills might struggle and might need special guidance.
  • Students may become confused between global climate change (ie warming) and the regional climate change that impacts society, which can be warming or cooling. This should be clarified.

About the Science

  • Introduces students to climate models and provides educator with opportunity to teach about the limitations and the value of climate models. It provides a good opportunity to introduce climate models and modeling in general.
  • Good and well-written background information for students and educators provided.
  • Doesn't do a lot in terms of helping students understand climate modeling.
  • Arithmetic that goes into the model is not given or transparent and makes it a "black box" (the guide only says that for relation between CO2 concentration and temperature the correlation is about 3° C for each doubling of CO2 concentration, no information on the link between emissions and concentrations).
  • Educator should stress that model outcome is a prediction and may not be what actually happens
  • Comment from expert scientist: Although the students learn that the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere rises whenever emissions are greater than zero, they don’t learn about the concept of residence time of CO2 in the atmosphere. A simple climate model might not account for the slow removal of CO2 from the atmosphere; however, this should be stated up front rather than in the background information. It would be useful to include some basic background information on the concept of residence time and how this may affect the results.

About the Pedagogy

  • Well-designed lesson plan and visually appealing model and results, which allow the students to follow the scientific process (define scenarios, compare independent/dependent variables, interpret and present results).
  • Extensions are very valuable, and it is great that there is a piece that offers solutions and doesn't leave the students hopeless.
  • Using the model, developing scenarios, testing them, and presenting results will engage students of different learning styles.
  • Making sense of the graph with 3 different y-axes might be a challenge to some students.

Technical Details/Ease of Use

  • Very easy to use.

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