The University Record, November 6, 2000

Global change sequence: ‘A different type of course’

By Rebecca A. Doyle

The fall 2000 class of Global Change I-Physical Processes examines seasonal properties from Earth's tilt with Profs. Perry Samson (foreground) and David Allan. Photo by Martin Vloet, U-M Photo Services.
A diverse instructional team is pursuing a teaching direction that, according to Ben van der Pluijm, “allows undergraduate students to dig into something important early in their University education.” Van der Pluijm is professor of geology and director of the Global Change Project.

Van der Pluijm says the one-year-old Global Change minor stimulates students both because it covers a topic that affects everyone and because it uses a course sequence that encourages critical thinking and early participation. Global Change I, II and III are the backbone of a “front-loaded” minor in global change. Front-loaded means that first-year students can begin right away to become absorbed in research, and work on projects that delve into issues of great societal importance.

Global Change I, which focuses on natural processes, is taught each fall, followed by Global Change II, focusing on human impacts, in the winter term. The capstone course, Global Change III, which examines sustainability issues, will be offered for the first time in fall 2001. There are no prerequisites for Global Change I and II, which target all undergraduates, including future non-science majors. Development of Global Change III and the Global Change minor and continuing support for the educational effort is funded by a recent grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, matched by University funds and continuing support from the central administration.

“This is a different type of course,” van der Pluijm explains. “It transcends all the schools and colleges on campus, and it is a faculty-driven initiative.” About 10 faculty members, five graduate student instructors (GSIs), one “super” GSI and a course organizer make up the staff involved in putting together the coursework and an extensive Web site. Faculty members from the School of Natural Resources and Environment; LS&A’s departments of Biology, Anthropology, Sociology and Geology; the Department of Atmospheric, Oceanic and Space Science; and the School of Public Health all contribute to the courses, offering lectures for different segments of the courses.

With as many as five faculty members lecturing in one term, one might think that students would be confused and that course material could become fragmented.

Keeping track of all the material and making sure that each segment of the course dovetails with the previous one is the responsibility of course coordinator Laura Brunengraber, a third-year LS&A honors student who organizes faculty meetings, keeps the paperwork in order and keeps the faculty members updated on who is teaching what.

“My job is to keep everything pretty uniform, to get all the faculty on the same page,” Brunengraber says.

Luis Fernandez, a Ph.D. student in resource policy and behavior, is “Super GSI” for the course program. The Global Change Web site (www.sprl.umich.edu/GCL/) is under his direction.

The Web site is a large part of what van der Pluijm calls the “clicks and mortar” structure. Students are not required to buy any text books, because all class notes are available online, and self-testing, evaluations, news items and exams and their answers are posted on the Web site. Students do, however, need to attend lectures and use the class notes to become familiar with the lecture material in advance of the class and later for review.

In addition to Fernandez’ role as Webmaster, he is the coordinator for all the GSIs involved in the course, and has been involved in the project since 1996.

“We design the system, then the outreach program,” Fernandez says. “We are trying to foster ideas of interdisciplinary teaching at the undergraduate first-year level.” The next goal for the program, he notes, is to package such tools as STELLA (a dynamic systems modeling program) and Arc View (a geographic information program) for students in Global Change I and II and for educators elsewhere, such as Brazil.

STELLA is the tool-of-choice for modeling of life science and social science projects, Brunengraber says. Using STELLA, she completed her independent project on the correlation between CO2 concentration and Earth temperature change by creating models of CO2 increase and decrease linked to fossil fuel consumption and other factors.

The conclusion she reached from the data and models was that humans have a great impact on the environment. While the increased temperature of the Earth has been associated by many with an increase in CO2 levels, using real data and constructing a scientific model through STELLA showed “there would have been a substantial difference in the Earth’s temperature without the Industrial Revolution,” she says.

STELLA is widely used in Global Change I lab sessions. In one exercise, the class successfully predicted changes in the wolf population in Yellowstone Park using available data for past years about the population, food sources and habitat.

Being able to be topically involved in the first year of her undergraduate study at the U-M has been very important to Brunengraber. Her course of study as an undergraduate is concentrated in microbiology and French, but she also plans to pursue a graduate degree in international public health.

Using STELLA and the Geographic Information System (GIS) program Arc View to help understand global change issues means that students will be using “the same cutting edge tools that researchers use,” Fernandez says. “It gives students a head start, especially in environmental fields.”

“There are no other courses like this on campus,” van der Pluijm notes. “The Hewlett grant in support of the Global Change minor allows us to offer to students the opportunity to focus on a fundamental area of interest early in their University education, and to take a total of five courses in order to complete a formal minor in this field. Incoming students are increasingly more prepared to choose their career, and they are more pragmatic than ever before.” The global change minor allows them to get right to work in a hands-on, interdisciplinary course that features senior faculty from a number of disciplinary fields.

Van der Pluijm emphasizes that “this is not a ‘dumbed-down’ or shallow course of study. Rather, faculty select one or two relevant components of their field to focus on, and we make that an integrated section of the class materials.”

Interest in the courses has grown from an initial 30 students in 1995 to 200 students in Global Change I last fall, when the cap was reached. Enrollment in Global Change II reached 86 last year. The courses are evaluated each term by the students, and faculty regularly test students to monitor changes in their skills in critical thinking and cognitive assessment, in a parallel evaluation effort by School of Education faculty.