Does a Few Degrees C of Global Warming Matter? or Understanding and Using Simple Climate Models, the 2019 Current Climate Change Workshop for High School Teachers, University of Washington, 18 May 2019.

By Miriam Bertram, Workshop Facilitator

As global warming continues, and the resultant impacts on the biosphere become increasingly apparent, our young people are taking to the streets to demand political action.  As these young people traverse the educational system, they need coursework and context for understanding and changing the future, for understanding what they are marching to achieve.  To serve our youth, high school science teachers need resources for expanding their knowledge and keeping up with climate as it changes.

Many at UW volunteer their time to support the integration of basic climate understandings into physics, biology and chemistry classrooms, and the creation of curriculum for climate and environmental science classrooms.  UW scientists are guest speakers, liaisons for courses taught through the UW in the High School program, and leaders of workshops/professional development opportunities for teachers.  Workshops facilitated by the UW Program on Climate Change (PCC) often incorporate new ideas or new curriculum created at the UW that focus on skill-building (e.g. graphical analysis of real data) or on a particular aspect of climate change (e.g. the climate feedbacks controlling how much warming occurs).  One such workshop was led by Dr. Kyle Armour and his research group in May 2019, and supported a deeper understanding of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) special report on 1.5C that was released in October 2018.

Explaining how scientists use our understanding of the physical climate system to predict earth system responses to increased atmospheric CO2 is difficult.  Yet, it touches on many of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) concepts—including using quantitative models to explain a real-world phenomenon (climate change) and understanding why climate models predict different futures.  The PCC climate education team introduced teachers to a lesson on climate models a few years ago, and we came to recognize that for teachers to use this lesson successfully they need more time thinking about the science and how to use it in their classrooms.  The goal of the May 2019 workshop was to offer teachers who already have a fundamental understanding of the earth’s energy budget the opportunity to integrate a simple way of teaching about climate model predictions into their curriculum.

Participants in the 2019 workshop on understanding climate model predictions.
Miriam Bertram
Kyle Armour and his research group led the 1-day workshop (6 WSTA clock hours) for teachers; offered through the UW Program on Climate Change.

Dr. Armour succeeded in taking 16 participating teachers through the history of climate science, basics of the climate system including greenhouse effect and radiation, greenhouse gas emissions, and what climate models predict.  The afternoon was then spent applying this understanding of the science of climate to work with a simplified climate model written in Excel.  While Kyle Armour gave his voice a rest, then undergraduate David Bonan, graduate students Sarah Ragen, Dylan Oldenburg, Yue Dong, and postdoc Brian Green guided teachers through fitting the climate model to the historical global temperature record and then using it to make predictions about future warming.  A key conclusion was that the simplified model, based on equations that can be written down by hand and solved in Excel, is able to produce predictions that look just like those from the complex numerical models used in IPCC reports.

2-layer energy balance modelPresentation materials and the Excel exercise using the two-layer model were shared with participants within a few days of the workshop.  Teachers reviewed the workshop very positively; one shared the following email comment:  “I just finished an exercise for my physics class about photon interactions with small molecules. I’ll be using a slide or two from the power points as well for an exercise on blackbody radiation and energy balance. This was a wonderful workshop for me. Teaching Earth and Space Science …again next year, I plan to incorporate a fair bit of this information in activities and instruction….”.

Dr. Armour will be revising the workshop content and leading this workshop again in spring 2020.  This workshop was funded in part by NSF CAREER Award AGS-1752796 to Kyle Armour.

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Questions? Contact Miriam Bertram, at

Miriam Bertram facilitated this and past UW Program on Climate Change (PCC) teacher-scientist workshops.  She is the Assistant Director for the PCC and has been working with high school teachers and scientists to collaborate around content development since 2011.