Environmental Science in a Changing World

Custom-built, interactive online modules developed for this introductory environmental science course guide students through the study of Earth’s climate history.

Working closely with Professor Stephen Porder and Postdoctoral Researcher Radika Bhaskar, the Lab created two purpose-built interactive online modules for this large introductory environmental science course. Both modules use data visualizations, powered by real paleocliamte and agricultural data, to help students develop data literacy and to provide hands-on opportunities for guided exploration of critical topics in contemporary environmental science.

Paleoclimate and Pollen Proxies

This interactive module introduced the science of climate proxies—specifically, the use of preserved pollen as a proxy for past climatic changes—in order to help students develop a conceptual understanding of paleoclimate. Using reconstructed pollen distribution maps from published research in conjunction with publicly available datasets and data exploration tools, the module guided students through the process and reasoning that allows scientists to infer past conditions from observable phenomena in the present. Along the way, students responded periodically to questions that required them interpret visual representations of pollen data or to apply specific forms of reasoning about pollen proxies and paleoclimate to new information.

Screenshot from online module, showing oak pollen distribution maps of eastern United States

Throughout the module, maps, graphics, and interactive visualizations presented data and published research. Open-ended questions elicited reflection on underlying principles and concepts.

Agriculture and Its Environmental Consequences

How will we feed the 9.5 billion people expected to live on Earth by 2050? What decisions will have to be made about how best to allocate scarce resources like land and water? What factors limit agricultural production, and what are the environmental effects of attempting to overcome those factors? These and other similar questions framed this interactive module and motivated its exploration of modern agricultural methods and their complex interrelation with environmental considerations. Using a series of simple interactive graphics, the module introduced crucial concepts in the study of agriculture, such as land area and yield, and demonstrated global differences in key agricultural indicators over time.

Screenshot from online module, showing interactive exercise to balance land use and yield against future calorie needs

How will we supply the world’s calories in 2050? Students attempt to balance increased land use and increased yield—both of which have dramatic environmental consequences—in this interactive simulation.

Inside the Box

Interactive, self-paced modules are a good way to provide more sustained attention to topics and ideas that have been introduced in class. When paired carefully with other assignments or activities, and integrated thoughtfully with individual class meetings, modules of this type offer a highly focused, effective means of developing conceptual understanding.


Who contributes?

  • Instructor
  • Researchers and other topical experts
  • Instructional designer(s)
  • Programmers, Web developers, and information designers

What work is involved?

  • Identifying high-priority topics and learning objectives
  • Storyboarding interactive module components
  • Researching data sources and preparing data
  • Web programming and design

How much time do you need?

Two to six months

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