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August 2021

September 2021

Classroom Stories: Teaching Climate in Astronomy Class

By Stacy Palen

This year, in particular, feels like a year in which we might be able to move the needle a little bit on the public understanding of climate change. The effects are starting to capture the attention of ordinary citizens who are infinitely distracted by…everything. Between the fires in the West, the extreme heat, and Hurricane Ida, ordinary citizens are starting to wake up to the fact that climate change matters to them.

Climate change is a thread that runs through my astronomy class, with a day devoted to it during my discussion of planetary atmospheres, and a lengthy revisit to it in our astrobiology discussion. But I also mention it when we talk about telescopes and atmospheric opacity (if the IR light can’t get down to the ground, it can’t get out to space, either, which is interesting because it has consequences that we talk about later in class). And I mention it when I talk about molecular bonds. And I also talk about it when we talk about “going to Mars” and whether there are fossil fuels there. In fact, I mention it matter-of-factly every time I see a connection that even remotely makes sense.

I also happen to teach a more advanced course in which we discuss climate and energy issues in gory physical detail, which means that I’m always looking for simulations and interactive sites that I can build activities around for students to use as they develop an intuition for the scope and complexity of the problem. (These activities often don’t make it into my Norton textbooks because they use resources we don’t control, so I can’t rely on them to be available, or to work the same way, for more than a semester at a time.) 

Earlier this year, the Climate Reality Project pulled together six of these interactive tools, with explanations about each. I found the list useful, and it might be useful to you, too!

Additionally, I have used the En-ROADS climate simulator for years, and it keeps getting better and more powerful (although that also means more complicated). I have an activity where students work in groups to negotiate how to adjust the world economy to try to control climate change. Hilarity, and sometimes intense arguments, ensue. Sometimes, they mention that this is one of the most meaningful activities of the whole semester because it reveals how complex these issues are.

I have also used the Climate Time Machine, which makes it easy to run as a demonstration during lecture. You slide the slider to see, for example, the impact of sea-level rise on various geographic areas.

There’s also a very nice Footprint Calculator on the list. There are lots of these around, but this particular one runs by sliders and dials, which makes it simple to use in a classroom situation where you don’t want students to get stuck on the details of one particular issue. The calculator ends by answering two questions: a). “On what day of the year have you used up your share of resources?” and b). “How many Earths would we need if everyone lived like you?” This offers a really great framing of the subject that students intuitively understand. If the answer to a). is before December 31, and the answer to b). is more than one Earth, then we’re in big trouble.

Feel free to check out these interactives and let me know if you end up using any of them in the classroom! I’m always looking for new ideas to help make this issue more concrete for students, and I always hate to leave them feeling helpless and wondering, “Yes, but what can I do?” These interactives help them find a meaningful way forward.