How do you raise awareness about a major issue like climate change? David Archer, professor of Geophysical Sciences at the University of Chicago, is tackling this very dilemma with his class “Global Warming: The Science of Climate Change.” The class is aimed at anyone curious about climate change and the basic science behind it. While it’s offered to University students twice a year on campus, anyone can take a version of the course online via the Coursera and edX platforms. These massive open online courses (MOOCs) are free and open to anyone with an internet connection.
Archer’s philosophy behind the class aimed at non-science students is to keep the subject simple. He frequently uses the popular kitchen sink analogy to help translate the complex climate challenge, saying energy flows through the planet like water through a faucet. But if something’s clogging the faucet (in this case, greenhouse gases), the water level (temperature of the planet) will rise and build up pressure.
“I want to excite their curiosity. I want to see the light bulb go off,” Archer says. “I’m very concerned about the future of the planet, so I have this idea that I want to convey to them about how fragile the planet is.”
The course covers the basic concepts surrounding the earth’s temperatures. Students learn about the nature of heat and light, the algebraic and conceptual model for the climate of a planet—including greenhouse gases—and eventually concluding with a look at the human impact on earth’s climate. To help students visualize these sometimes complex topics, Archer created simple and easy to use interactive models for his classes to explore.
Throughout the class, Archer weaves in perspectives from physics, chemistry, biology, earth and atmospheric sciences, economics and math, which he says are all essential to understanding the human impact.
The in-person course serves as a core class to fulfill part of the science requirement for university students. It’s one of the most popular courses on campus, with about 400 students taking it each year. But the online course reaches an even wider and more global audience. From a water engineer in Pakistan to a University of Chicago student, roughly 14,000 to 15,000 people sign up for the MOOC every time it’s offered.
Unlike the in-person 45-minute class, the online course features bite-sized video lectures lasting less than ten minutes each, and each are broken up into smaller pieces that relate to specific topics.
The online course also has a level of interactivity that you might find in the classroom.
“The discussion forums give the MOOC a level of community,” says Archer. “There are lots of people who need help with ideas or how to solve problems, but other students always answer, and they do a great job of it and they benefit from it.”
But nothing beats in-person interaction with Archer, says Jonathan Behrens, a University of Chicago senior who has taken both the online and in-person versions of the course and was a teaching assistant for Archer. Having access to the University’s labs is also a bonus. Still, providing free access to a wide net of people is important, Behrens says.
“I think that climate change is one of the greatest concerns for our generation,” Behrens says. “The class was a very interesting and a very comprehensive backing for understanding this issue.“ At the same time, he says, “By making the course free, people have the opportunity to maybe watch a few videos and maybe get bits and pieces of the knowledge.”
That accomplishes Archer’s mission, which he says is to provide everyone with a basic understanding of the change that is happening to our planet.
“The fact that I have children and they will have children, I’m scared, honestly,” Archer says, noting the big impact climate change will have on future generations.
If you’re interested in taking Archer’s MOOC, you will soon be able to take it whenever you choose as the course is being transferred to a new on-demand platform. Check back here on the Coursera website this fall. The in-person course is being offered in the fall by Professor Doug MacAyeal. Archer will teach it again next spring.