The Earth's Record of Climate: A Focused-Topic Introductory Course

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ABSTRACT

The Earth's Record of Climate is an introductory geology course offered at the University of St. Thomas that explores the science of paleoclimatology and its relevance to the climate change of the last century. Most undergraduate students that enroll in the course believe that climate change is a significant concern, but lack knowledge of the scientific basis or express important misconceptions about the problem. Students build the necessary skills to work with different forms of earth science data including oxygen isotopic data, fossils, and sediment descriptions. They also read and respond to articles on climate change. Students demonstrate their learning with: 1) a final project in which they complete a detailed paleoclimate reconstruction 2) a final exam essay in which they respond in a substantive fashion to a climate change skeptic, and 3) the results of a Knowledge Survey. Knowledge Survey results show a significant increase (1.17 points on a 3 pt scale) in student confidence by the end of the course. Representative comments from student reports on teaching suggest that it both challenges them and increases their interest in earth science. Numerical ratings from student reports on teaching are consistently higher (by 5% on average) than those for an introductory physical geology course that I teach.

INTRODUCTION AND COURSE OVERVIEW

In the department of geology at The University of St. Thomas (UST) we have developed five introductory courses that focus on specific topics of interest to students while at the same time providing a core set of agreed-upon concepts that are critical for all students that move on to become geology majors. These course offerings are: Introduction to Physical Geology, Geology of the National Parks, The Science of Natural Disasters, Environmental Geology, and the course I describe in this paper. Part of the rationale for the redevelopment of our introductory curriculum was to increase student learning by offering topical courses that are more relevant to their lives. As part of this effort, I have developed a course called The Earth's Record of Climate (ERC) that explores the science of paleoclimatology and its relevance to studies of modern global climatic change. The course makes use of several inquiry-based learning techniques (e.g. Haury, 1993), and takes an interdisciplinary, earth systems approach that has been advocated by geoscience educators over the past decade (i.e. Iretonetal., 1997).

I developed this course because climate is a topic that is ubiquitous in the national discussion and there is a clear need for students to explore and understand what scientific evidence, including the broad spectrum of past natural climate variability, tells us about the human impact on climate. Moreover, UST has a small, growing geology department attempting to attract majors and minors. We expected that this course would attract a different type of student than might choose to enroll in a more traditional geology course because of the relevance of the topic.

Few geology departments offer a course on climatology or paleoclimatology at the introductory level. Geology courses on these topics tend to be offered as intermediate or upper-level électives for those majoring in the discipline. In contrast, many geography departments, including UST's, offer an introductory course on weather and climate. Such courses tend to emphasize the workings of the modern climate system, use textbooks such as Meteorology Today (Ahrens, 2003), and take a spatial approach to exploring the climate system which is a strength of the geography curricula. The advantage of a geology course on climate, like ERC, is that it provides a temporal approach, something that is not well developed in geography courses. For students, this temporal perspective is crucial in providing a solid context on how the climate change of the past century compares with the long history of change and in particular the significance of the rate and magnitude at which climate change is now proceeding. …