Description

Environmental Science in a Changing World

Components

Working closely with Professor Stephen Porder and Postdoctoral Researcher Radika Bhaskar, the Sheridan Center created two purpose-built interactive online modules for this course. Both modules use data visualizations, powered by real paleoclimate and agricultural data, to help students develop data literacy and to provide hands-on opportunities for guided exploration of critical topics in contemporary environmental science.

Methods

Paleoclimate and Pollen Proxies

This interactive module introduced the science of climate proxies—specifically, the use of preserved pollen as a proxy for past climatic changes—in order to help students develop a conceptual understanding of paleoclimate. Using reconstructed pollen distribution maps from published research in conjunction with publicly available datasets and data exploration tools, the module guided students through the process and reasoning that allows scientists to infer past conditions from observable phenomena in the present. Along the way, students responded periodically to questions that required them interpret visual representations of pollen data or to apply specific forms of reasoning about pollen proxies and paleoclimate to new information.

Agriculture and Its Environmental Consequences

How will we feed the 9.5 billion people expected to live on Earth by 2050? What decisions will have to be made about how best to allocate scarce resources like land and water? What factors limit agricultural production, and what are the environmental effects of attempting to overcome those factors? These and other similar questions framed this interactive module and motivated its exploration of modern agricultural methods and their complex interrelation with environmental considerations. Using a series of simple interactive graphics, the module introduced crucial concepts in the study of agriculture, such as land area and yield, and demonstrated global differences in key agricultural indicators over time.

Outcomes

Interactive, self-paced modules are a good way to provide more sustained attention to topics and ideas that have been introduced in class. When paired carefully with other assignments or activities, and integrated thoughtfully with individual class meetings, modules of this type offer a highly focused, effective means of developing conceptual understanding. Creating interactive modules can involve identifying high-priority topics and learning objectives, storyboarding interactive module components, researching data sources and preparing data, and web programming and design. For instructors, this type of project can take between two and six months, depending on the scope and number of modules.