Dr. Dagomar Degroot, Georgetown University
The Tipping Points map at the time of publication (April 30th, 2018).
In late 2016, Randall Bass, vice provost for education at Georgetown University, asked me to help design and teach a pilot project at Georgetown University that would experiment with a new way of introducing climate change to undergraduate students. The Core Pathway on Climate Change initiative, as we came to call it, ultimately allowed students to mix and match seven-week courses - "modules" - to find their own pathway through the scholarship of climate change. Each module explored climate change from a different disciplinary vantage point, from English Literature through Environmental History and the Earth Sciences.
Students could, for example, mix modules on literature and climate change with modules on the theology and philosophy of climate change. Alternatively, they could select modules on the physics and chemistry of climate change with environmental science modules that survey the impacts of global warming on water use and the ecology of cities. We scheduled every module for the same time, and we capped each at around 20 students. The program attracted over 100 students, many of whom were eager to learn more about climate change and anxious to be part of solving its pressing challenges.
After and in some cases during every module, all the students in the program convened for "integrative days" in large halls or auditoriums. Often, we would guide students through an activity that encouraged them to draw on the distinct disciplinary insights they had learned in their modules. In our final integrative day, former Vice President Al Gore joined us for a series of meetings and talks that addressed the gravity of the climate change crisis and the prospects for overcoming it.
Al Gore gives his final talk at the last integrative day of the Core Pathways Program at Georgetown University.
I taught two environmental history modules in the Core Pathway on Climate Change: one that surveyed how societies coped with the climatic cooling of the Little Ice Age from the thirteenth through the nineteenth centuries, and another that explored the causes, consequences, and controversies of anthropogenic global warming. Both modules cover huge topics, of course, but the seven-week format actually helped me emphasize what was most important about them.
Students in my Little Ice Age module learned how scholars work together to reconstruct past climate changes, studied what the history of natural climatic variability tells us about the causes of climate change, and evaluated what made societies vulnerable - or resilient - in the face of climatic cooling. Students in my global warming module learned about the "discovery" of global warming; weighed scholarship about its environmental and human consequences; traced the history of "geoengineering" schemes, and debated the causes for government inaction.
The innovative design of the Core Pathways Program and the quality of our students also encouraged me to experiment with different kinds of assignments. Early in 2017, I won a Georgetown Environment Initiative grant for a new initiative - the "Tipping Points Project" - that aims to raise popular awareness about the consequences of global climatic trends for local communities. My grant covers events at Georgetown that connect climate scholars who actively reach out to the public, but from the start I imagined that the heart of the Tipping Points Project would be a map littered with icons that directed visitors to short, jargon-free articles on the impacts of climate change in local communities. The focus would be on the United States: still the world's superpower, and the only country poised to withdraw from the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.
As I prepared to teach my first Core Pathways modules, I realized that some of my assignments could require my students to write first drafts of these articles. With that in mind, I created a first edition of the Tipping Points map and website. I added a page to the website that listed online tools that visitors and students could easily use to reconstruct and project climatic trends - temperature, precipitation, sea levels, and more - in local communities. To see if students could actually use these tools to write compelling articles - and to give them templates for those articles - I drafted two short pieces for the website. The first examined how climate change would likely impact the environments and people of Washington, DC, while the second explored the impacts of past climate change in Tulare County, California.
Many students gravitated towards the the Climate Central "Surging Seas, Mapping Choices" program, which represents the impacts of rising sea levels on coastal communities, in different emissions scenarios (and absent adaptive responses).
Students drew on these templates to write their own Tipping Points articles. In our Little Ice Age module, they used the tools on the Tipping Points website to reconstruct the impacts of past climate change in local communities, while in our Global Warming module, they used other tools to project the consequences of climate change, sometimes in the same communities. Often, they chose to write about counties and cities that had special significance for them: hometowns, places they visited, places they aspired to live in. Sometimes, they wrote for family members they hoped to persuade.
I stressed that every article should follow a simple format. It had to have three parts devoted to, first, the impacts of climate change on local environments; second, how we know that those impacts had happened or would likely happen; and third, the likely consequences of those environmental impacts for local communities. I challenged students to avoid jargon while clearly explaining the mechanisms behind the relationships they uncovered. It was not enough for them to mention, for example, that global warming would likely make severe hurricanes more common. They had to explain how warmer waters, changing atmospheric circulation, and rising sea levels would likely all play a role in intensifying the worst hurricanes and magnifying their human impacts.
Perhaps above all, students learned just how difficult - but how important - it can be to communicate complex ideas in plain English.
In the end, my students submitted roughly seventy Tipping Points articles in my modules. As I painstakingly edited and expanded each article, I decided that the icons on our map should convey something about the articles to which they linked. First, I opted to color-code the icons: blue for articles that dealt with past climate change, and red for articles that projected future climate change. I figured out a way to allow visitors to view only articles about past or present climate change, if they played with the filters on our map.
Second, I decided to use icons that visualize the major weather trends in each article. A thermometer represents temperatures changes; waves represent rising sea levels; cyclones represent hurricanes; rain drops represent liquid precipitation; and suns represent droughts (okay, that one is a little less straightforward). As I populated the Tipping Points map with icons, I was struck by how clearly it visualized the extent to which climate change had already altered environments and impacts communities across the United States. Droughts already routinely stretch across the southwest; hurricanes and rising sea levels already imperil the east coast. And of course, there is so much more to come.
The Tipping Points map currently features icons that link to nearly twenty student-written, and professor-revised, articles. Each include striking visualizations, many created by students using the accessible tools listed on our website. By the end of the summer, the map should be teeming with as many as seventy icons. Bathsheba Demuth - our assistant director at HistoricalClimatology.com and the Climate History Network - may also ask her students at Brown University to write Tipping Points articles. That would allow us to host over 100 articles by spring 2019.
Going forwards, we will use our online resources - including our social media feeds - to direct visitors to new articles as they come online. We will permanently link to the Tipping Points project under the "resources" tab of HistoricalClimatology.com. Ultimately, I hope that the Tipping Points map will provide a first stop for ordinary people interested in the impact of climate change in their communities. It may also serve as an example of the ways in which instructors can use simple, digital platforms to allow undergraduate students to create resources that have both pedagogical value in the classroom, and practical value in the real world.
So please, visit the Tipping Points website, and stay tuned for much more!
Dr. Bathsheba Demuth, Brown University
Most students at Brown University know Professor Kathleen Hess from the two-semester challenge of organic chemistry. But in a class that debuted this fall, “Exploration of the Chemistry of Renewable Energy,” Dr. Hess blended the tools of her discipline with questions of human impacts on the climate, renewable energy technologies, and the social impact of how energy is generated and used. The result is a socially-engaged course blending social science and bench science. “I thought this would be a perfect way to teach students who were not science majors,” Hess explains. “That was my goal.”
Courses on climate or energy history, renewable energy, and the relationship between climate and society are now taught at universities and colleges across the country. Most are designed by faculty in humanities, earth science, or engineering departments. Hess’s class offers a new model. Inspired by the Chemistry Collaborations, Workshops, and Communities of Scholars (cCWCS) pedagogy seminars, Hess's syllabus combines interdisciplinary readings, guest lectures, writing assignments - and laboratory experiments. “I wanted to give students both background on the topic,” she says, “and then give them the hands-on experiment so they would have practical experience.”
The course began by examining why renewable energy sources are increasingly important. Students read about fossil fuel pollution, climate change, and energy politics. They also did lab experiments to calculate how much energy is required to light a classroom. Then the syllabus moved on to examine batteries, fuel cells and solar panels. Hess framed each topic around a question. “Scientists should always be enquiring rather than saying we’re just going to the lab to make such and such,” Hess says. In one case, the class spent several weeks researching sources and uses of biofuel energy. Then students went to the lab to make fuel out of food waste from the Brown dining halls. “The students were really excited about this,” Hess notes. But when the class compared the energy yield to other fuels, “there was a lot of ‘oh, this is why we don’t do this,’” Hess says. “It was more of an illustration than just looking at another graph, because they saw and understood the processes involved.”
In another case, students produced acid rain in a petri dish. Unlike history or policy classes, where acid rain is a topic – or most chemistry classes, where experiments are done in solution - Hess’s students saw “how concrete and bridges erode, and saw how materials travel through the air.” Students designed experiments to measure individual carbon emissions. In another experiment the class made their own hydrogen fuel cells. It required working with hydrochloric acid. Hess says hands-on exercises like this generated a great deal of student enthusiasm – not just energy between fuel cells – but were also complex and delicate. This was sometimes a challenge for students not used to the lab sciences. “Sometimes just getting ready to do the labs,” Hess says, “took some time and explaining. Sometimes they didn’t know how to start. So there could be a bit of inertia there.” Overall, however, Hess found “the level of student interest was really high. At the end of the course of the students told me that none of the lab assignments felt like homework, because they were so enjoyable.”
Across case studies, Hess linked the experiments back to social, political, and economic questions. Hess says her class arrived with “quite a few preconceived notions about why people believe in global warming or not, why they’re interested in renewable energy or not.” Through readings and lectures that covered climate change, the development of the current energy grid, the history of the electric car, the use of solar panel systems, and how humans have used different energy sources in the past, students started thinking about “how none of them have ever lived without power – without a light switch to turn on.” Student read about everything from global energy transitions to oil company correspondence about fossil fuel development. “I wanted them to see that we can always judge why people use the resources they do,” Hess explains, “but there are multiple sides to the story.”
Seeing these multiple sides helped students understand how the physical principles and technologies they were learning about in the lab “was one thing, but how to incorporate it into society is another,” Hess says. She had each student choose a renewable technology – from algal biofuels to concentrated solar – and design a brochure to convince consumers to use a new source of energy. Students also presented the results of their alternative energy research to the class. For Hess, this was the most inspiring part of the course. As each student learned to combine their technical knowledge from labs with their research on specific fuels, she says “they felt that was encouraging because they had to come up with an alternative energy to talk about, and knew collectively about all these different options.”
While thinking about climate change and the future is often discouraging and leaves individuals unsure how to respond, Hess found this course affirmed her sense that “education is the first step away from not knowing what to do. Especially mindful education where we don’t just judge things, but examine the combination of physical processes and assumptions that make them happen.” The best approaches to teaching climate change often combine perspectives from many disciplines, from the sciences to the humanities.