Initial Publication Date: July 12, 2018

Grand Challenge 2:

How do we teach complex interconnected Earth systems to build student conceptual understanding of, for example, climate change?


Teaching about complex systems (e.g. Scherer et al., 2017, Holden et al., 2017), like changes in climate over multiple temporal and spatial scales, represents a challenge that has been studied extensively. Reviewing existing studies, proposed learning strategies (e.g. Gunckel et al., 2012, Mohan et al., 2009; McNeal et al., 2014; Bush et al., 2016), and drawing from other disciplines would be a valuable contribution to the Earth science community. Learning progression research conducted in the K-12 realm (Songer et al., 2009) can inform instruction in higher education, in particular within the area of interconnected Earth systems. Learning progressions are "descriptions of the successively more sophisticated ways of thinking about a topic that can follow one another as children learn about and investigate a topic over a broad span of time." (Duschl et al., 2007). An example of a tool that explores the history of life on Earth within a deep-time plate tectonics and climate framework to inform students about future climate change is HHMI Changing Planet: Past, Present, and Future (Figure 5).

Recommended Research Strategies

  1. Recent literature reviews on student learning of complex Earth systems (Holder et al., 2017; Scherer et al., 2017) provide the GER community with a foundation that can be used to study the conceptual understanding of climate change. Identifying examples from other disciplines (e.g., engineering) can provide a broader context for future research.
  2. Inquiry and problem-based education have shown promise in enhancing learning of complex systems like climate change (e.g., Bush et al., 2016). We propose to expand testing of instructional strategies that have shown impact on learning to a broad range of learning environments (e.g., online, introductory, upper-level undergraduate, pre-service teachers, informal) and student populations.
  3. Examination of learning progression research conducted in and developed for the K-12 setting can inform GER strategies used to research undergraduate students' development of understanding complex Earth systems. Adapting such research findings and strategies also has the potential to better align and understand the knowledge that students hold upon entering the higher education system to study earth and environmental sciences.
  4. Study how conceptual understanding evolves from introductory to upper-level courses within different programs (oceanography, atmospheric sciences), and how we should prepare geoscience majors for graduate school and the profession (Mosher et al., 2014).