Course: GEO102B
Instructor: Sigman
F 2015

Description of Course Goals and Curriculum

The central goal of this course is to provide you with a thorough knowledge of climate processes and climate history to allow you to have informed and intelligent conversations about the issue of global warming. There are five units in this course, and they are organized thematically. The first unit is the longest, and it focuses on climate processes in general—atmospheric, oceanic, and glacial cycles. This first unit provides the background necessary for informed discussion in the second unit, which delves into modern climate and climate warming. The last three units move more quickly: the third focuses on ongoing glacial cycles (ice ages and interglacial periods), which leads into the fourth unit about climate over Earth’s history. All of these first four units culminate in the final synthesis unit about the implications of climate history for future climate, as well as responses to climate change. The description of this course says that it is intended to be accessible to non-science majors, and this is absolutely true: no background knowledge is assumed.

Learning From Classroom Instruction

This class consists of two 80-minute lectures, one lab, and a reading from the textbook each week. Lectures are the heart of the class, especially because there are students taking GEO 102A, the same course with the same lectures and exams but without the lab component. Professor Sigman is a dynamic and animated lecturer, and he works to keep students involved: he does demonstrations with anything from balloons to beach balls, and he frequently has students work on practice problems and answer clicker questions. However, one challenge is that each lecture covers a lot of material in great detail and at a pretty rapid pace. The information in each lecture is cumulative—so if you lose focus or become confused, you’ll miss information necessary to understand the rest of the lecture, which makes it hard to become engaged again.  A good way to grapple with this challenge is to balance between listening and note-taking: because Sigman posts lecture slides after class each day (and these slides are pretty comprehensive), it is not necessary to copy down all the text on the slides. In fact, it can be a detriment—writing down every word can make it hard to listen and absorb what Sigman is saying. It is better to use the slides as guides to organize the information, and then to write notes on the information that the lecture slides alone do not explain in a way that you’ll be able to understand going forward, as well as any details that Sigman emphasizes.

If taken advantage of, labs can be a really useful way to solidify understanding of key concepts from lecture. The labs themselves are pretty straightforward: they are usually simulations/demonstrations, rather than experiments in which you’re actually collecting data or analyzing results. Because they’re straightforward, it can be easy to go through them somewhat mindlessly. But actively questioning whether you understand why you’re actually doing the demonstration and how it connects to the core themes and processes of the class pays off, both when working on the lab reports and in terms of overall understanding.

The textbook reading is not as important to the course. Professor Sigman is transparent in saying that nothing that is described in the textbook but is not mentioned in lecture will appear on the exams, and this is absolutely true. The reading can help with understanding, but I found it to be more valuable to spend my time reviewing lecture notes/slides and making sure that I understood them than putting a lot of time into the textbook reading.

Learning For and From Assignments

There are three primary graded components of this class: take-home, open-book quizzes on Blackboard; lab reports; and the midterm and final exam. Because the take-home quizzes on Blackboard are open-book and have no time limit, many students were surprised to find that they still could be challenging. They primarily involve multiple choice and fill-in-the-blank questions, and the thing that makes them challenging is that they often test for details. However, most of the answers can be found within the slides themselves (only occasionally are they based on something that Sigman said in class but is not explicitly mentioned in the slides), as long as you are familiar with and understand the slides. The key to doing well on these quizzes was 1) being willing to block off a solid chunk of time to take the quizzes—if you do these quizzes quickly and try to trust your instincts/memory, you may miss some counterintuitive answers, 2) going to lecture and actively listening/taking notes, because familiarity with the material allows you to know where to search in the slides for answers, and 3) emailing Professor Sigman if there are any questions that confuse you–sometimes the language is unclear, and Sigman is completely willing to clarify if you just reach out!

Lab reports for this class are not like typical lab reports: you do not need to write up introduction, procedures, results, etc. Instead, they involve answering ~5 “synthesis” questions that test your understanding of broad, underlying concepts from labs and lecture and your ability to apply those concepts to the real-world problems. These can be challenging primarily if you’re having difficulty with a particular concept (e.g. deep ocean circulation), because fully understanding the underlying processes is central to being able to answer the questions. Another challenge is that sometimes the questions sound open-ended, but they’re actually looking for a specific answer. Both of these challenges can be addressed by working on lab reports early in the week so that, if there are any questions you don’t understand, you can meet with your lab TA. If you work early and email or meet with your lab TA with any questions, it is very manageable to do well on lab reports.

Finally, the largest components of your grade are the midterm and final exams. Like the quizzes, these are mostly multiple choice and fill-in-the-blank. The challenge of these exams is the sheer volume of material that you need to keep track of; in general, they test recall of information and understanding of processes more than application of concepts (although there are a handful of questions about application). Make sure that you are familiar with all of the information covered on the lecture slides—you need to be able recognize (though not memorize) anything that came up in lecture. From there, it is helpful to make flashcards from the material on the slides and from lecture notes, in order to really nail down the key points from each unit. Though it was important to have a pretty in-depth and detailed comprehension of the material, it wasn’t necessary to memorize random dates (e.g. different geological time periods) and figures. Above all, it’s most important to make sure you understand the underlying processes (e.g. energy transport, atmospheric circulation, ocean circulation, glacial cycles) in detail. Going back over lab reports and talking through processes with a classmate is really helpful for this.

The one other element that can contribute to your grade in the course is attendance: as mentioned previously, Professor Sigman incorporates practice problems into lecture. At the end of lecture, these problems are collected, and you receive full credit simply for turning them in. Completion of these problems is not normally calculated into your final grade, but if you’re on the border between two scales, it can tip the scale.

External Resources

Though she is not technically an “external” resource, Danielle Schmitt is somebody involved in organizing the class, but she often goes overlooked by students because she does not have a clear or official teaching role. But emailing or meeting with her can be incredibly helpful. Professor Sigman is wonderful, but sometimes his brilliance and the depth of his scientific knowledge can make it hard for him to explain concepts in simple ways. Danielle is less of a high-powered scientist, and she’s great at breaking things down and explaining processes in simple terms.

What Students Should Know About This Course For Purposes Of Course Selection

The understanding that you gain in this course is really valuable and relevant to discussions about global warming and environmental issues. Almost every day, I see some article about climate change or hear some politician’s stance on the issue, and I feel that I now have the knowledge to mentally fact check these claims.

There are two branches of this course—the lab course (102B) and the non-lab course (102A). While both are great options, I found that labs were really helpful in solidifying my understanding. My friends who did not take the lab sometimes found it hard to be actively engaged with the material, simply because there are no precepts or regular homework assignments. As a result, without the lab reports forcing them to think about the core processes, they said that it was easy to get a bit lost in the material without fully realizing it until a few days before an exam. However, if you do elect to take the non-lab section, be aware of this challenge going in, and make sure to review lecture notes regularly, put time and thought into the take-home quizzes, and go to Professor Sigman’s office hours.

Climate: Past, Present, and Future

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