A new curriculum module allows students to analyze and explore climate change data in real time.

Last summer, two Puget Sound faculty members received some exciting news. They’d won a National Science Foundation grant to develop new course modules that would allow students to explore and experience real data collected by Arctic and Antarctic scientists.

The potential for increased climate literacy and critical thinking was huge. Steven Neshyba, professor of chemistry, and Lea Fortmann, assistant professor of economics, believe that the most effective way to teach students about climate change is to let them engage with real polar research such as data on snowpack cover, glacier melt rates, and the maps and models associated with them. This information is uploaded by scientists working out of research stations like McMurdo on the Antarctic coast or the Barrow Observatory in the Arctic, and students can access it from a variety of sources, including the National Snow and Ice Data Center.

The way that students explore this research is through computational guided inquiry (CGI). In a CGI-structured course, the instructor guides the students in scientific inquiry using computational tools for managing, analyzing, and visualizing data. “CGI is a process, not a result,” Steven says. “Each CGI module is different, but the aim is for students to work through problems, not just solve them. It opens the door to scientific thinking.”

For example, a Polar CGI module might show a student how to create a probability distribution of the surface temperature at a meteorology station in Barrow, Alaska, and then invite the student to do something similar with data from a different part of the world.

“There are two goals with this project: The first is to increase climate literacy and knowledge of polar information. The second is to enable students to critically analyze data,” Lea explains.