Positive Forcings in Climate-Change Pedagogy


Climate Change. SimUText Ecology . Roach, W. J., S. Maruca and E. Meir . 2010 . SimBio , Ithaca , NY . $9 . Available from https://www.simbio.com .

For nearly a decade, courses in conservation science have included lessons on climate change as a key driver of species extinction. Conservation graduates set out into the field well versed in the ways in which this global threat compounds the effects of habitat fragmentation, unsustainable harvesting, and invasive species. They can even recount in detail tragic examples of climate-related effects on bird migrations, amphibians, and flagship species such as polar bears. Nevertheless, ask the average conservation scientist how the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) generates its climate predictions or how climate change is attributed to various causal factors and one is likely to get a vague answer. This query does not challenge only conservation scientists. It is, in fact, an important issue of environmental literacy in general. To arm future environmental scientists with a greater knowledge of this debated global threat, students need to be provided with a firm grounding in climate change.

At an undergraduate level, addition of introductory lessons on climate change to existing courses in ecology, zoology, biogeography, and conservation science has been slow—perhaps due to a lack of understanding on the lecturers’ part and a lack of relevant teaching materials. For those who do teach about climate change, a significant challenge presents itself when the make up of the class is varied—some with backgrounds in mathematics or physics and others with backgrounds in biology or social science. A study in the United States examined the difficulties secondary school students have in understanding climate systems and carbon cycling (Mohan et al. 2009). Commonly, students were unable to link scientific knowledge to global systems, the transference of systems knowledge to broader spatial and temporal scales being a root of the problem. In my experience, introducing university environmental students to climate change is similarly challenging and as Mohan et al. propose, the teaching approach needs reshaping.

For this monumental challenge, SimUText may have the answer. Along with SimBiotic Software, they have launched their online Ecology course series that includes a chapter on climate change with novel approaches to interactive learning. The chapter “Climate Change” is available on its own, so it can be added to existing curricula without buying the entire series. The series is undergraduate level material that follows the recent trend in electronic textbooks—a departure from heavy books laden with figures and case-study boxes and the obligatory chapter quizzes covered in the scribbling of past students. Although I have a personal fondness for these traditional textbooks, the modern textbook is conveniently online with links to case studies, rapid feedback quizzes, and study materials such as electronic flashcards. SimUText's Ecology series takes this a step further by including interactive simulations of the introduced concepts. In terms of understanding Earth's climate systems and climate change, such interactive exercises are incredibly useful.

The learn-by-doing instruction in the chapter “Climate Change” introduces concepts such as albedo, radiative forcings, and attribution models by having the student control inputs to simulated examples and witness the result. For example, one can experience how a climate model is built by starting with a simple model in which one controls solar input, followed by control of albedo and then human activities. Climate modeling is a particularly challenging concept to teach because the models are numerous and complex. The chapter's introduction to early, simple climate models is well paced and illustrated through the interactive simulations and lays foundations for understanding the more complex general circulation models. What would have been useful is an ability to interact with slightly more complex models, particularly one with vegetation feedbacks, given that the chapter is part of an ecology series. In fact, vegetation and its role in modifying global climate is not well covered in the text either, but this gap can be addressed easily and is one that hardly detracts from the usefulness of the chapter as a whole.

Students who are used to the immediate affirmation provided by most media today should appreciate the exercises offered throughout the text and the rapid feedback. I liked the fact that many of the questions could only be answered by engaging with the interactive exercises, forcing the reader to process the simulations. The rapid feedback often provides explanations as well, reminding the reader of the logic behind the answer. For instructors, the online system also allows one to track students’ progress and identify areas that may need further coverage in the classroom. There are also accompanying PowerPoint (Microsoft, Redmond, Washington) slides.

For the purpose of teaching climate change to conservation-science students, this electronic learning tool will be particularly useful. The pedagogy of conservation science is as varied as the students who enroll in conservation science (differences in student backgrounds are highly relevant in developing countries). Students may have base degrees in zoology or ecology or may have a foundation based solely on field experience. I have taught conservation science to students with all of the above and for some time have taught conservation science to geography students in a South African university. These undergraduates come from either a physical or social science background, so class discussions range from exhilarating debates on land use to painfully slow dissections of population viability analyses. Lectures on climate change fall somewhere in between, and the aspects that receive the most complaints and exacerbated sighs are the models. Having an interactive teaching material that can be easily accessed for as long as a student requires could be the answer. These types of e-textbooks have been successfully used in mathematics; students of different capacities spend the time needed to work through interactive illustrations.

Divergent backgrounds and learning paces aside, another advantage of SimUText's e-textbook chapters in the developing world is access. Even the top universities of Africa have limited access to and supply of textbooks in their libraries, along with a student body whose funds for books are low. The growing availability of e-textbooks has helped in circumventing the issue of access, and SimUText provides this access even where internet connections are intermittent—the chapters of SimUText's Ecologys series are downloaded along with a software program that allows one to save and print chapter text and once launched, continue interactive work without being connected to the internet. Sending answers to an instructor does, however, require a network connection.

In the developed world, SimUText's chapter “Climate Change” eases the teaching of climate modeling in university lecture halls, but it could also assist secondary schools in revising approaches to teaching climate change science. However, such innovative educational materials should not be restricted to cloistered educational institutions. The more urgent target is the general public. Imagine extrapolating interactive climate models to more public-friendly media—open-access websites, a climate-change version of The Sims, or a Wii game in which the player can influence a climate change attribution model by shoveling coal into a burner or planting trees. A new challenge for SimUText and SimBiotic Software? Now, if we could just power these teaching media with renewable energy.