Introducing Climate Change Science to College Students

I have been asked by the esteemed founder of this site, John Cook, to contribute a few posts with which I will attempt to provide readers with interesting materials on climate change science.  “Climate change science” has been selected instead of “climate science” because our world’s climate is changing before our eyes. This first post will attempt to answer the age-old question of how best to introduce the concepts of climate change science in a college-level first course. 

The Introduction

How does one introduce climate science to students that may have recently decided to take a first science class since graduating from preparatory school or that have been offered a selection of science courses from which to choose?  In an introductory science course, (1) do we want to impart very detailed information to students or (2) do we want to give them an appreciation of the science?  What do we expect students to remember for decades after taking our course?  Do we want them to remember an aggregate of loosely connected facts or a body of information that defines the science and that allows them to be able to converse about climate change in an intelligent manner?

There are multiple answers to these question so let me try one out on you hoping that you will share some ideas with me and other readers.  No matter what approach is used, an excellent first reading assignment is from this web site,, “Newcomers, Start Here” and “The Big Picture.”  These two sections are concise and provide students with an overview of climate change and will supplement the introductory approach that is decided upon and the first few lectures in introductory climate change science courses.

A Current Approach

My approach has always been a combination of the methods given above; (1) enough detail about the science to hopefully allow the student to gain an appreciation for the science, and (2) to teach principles by which the foundations of the science were laid.  In the recently released Farmer and Cook textbook “Climate Change Science: A Modern Synthesis” we introduce the subject of climate science by discussing global warming and the current state of our climate, the early workers who laid the foundations of our science, how they conducted their work, and the major advances that were made before the present.  How did we get to where we are today in our knowledge of climate change science, who got us here and what do we know of today’s changing climate and the recent history (the past few thousand or millions of years) of Earth’s climate.


Our current approach to introducing the subject includes a discussion or overview of the following topics:  an introduction to global warming; the greenhouse effect, climate sensitivity, average global temperature, carbon dioxide, climate and weather, energy and climate policy, the hockey stick controversy, albedo, irradiance, as well as other introductory topics.

Future Posts

Additional posts will include further discussions of topics covered in an introductory course in climate change science at the college level.  Hopefully a continuing dialog will develop and we may share ideas on introducing climate change science to college students.

Posted by rockytom on Friday, 1 February, 2013

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