Brief Overview

In this activity students invent a new world by drawing color maps to represent it. Their challenge is to predict what the climate (specifically temperature) will be like on their new worlds. To do so, they investigate the causes of temperature variation on earth. They use the WorldWatcher software which provides facilities for them to draw their color maps

What mistakes do people make and why do they matter?

This activity addresses knowledge gaps in the domain of earth system science and errors that people make in drawing conclusions from data.

In the domain area of earth system science…general, people to do not recognize the nature of the earth as a system of dynamic, interacting components (atmosphere, lithosphere, hydrosphere, cryosphere, biosphere, anthrosphere). Understanding this earth system view is essential to making decisions about the environment and policy. Most people do not understand the causes of temperature variation, such as variations in incoming solar energy, surface reflectivity, surface elevation, specific heat, the circulation of the oceans and atmosphere, and the chemistry of the atmosphere.

In working with data, people typically fail to look for disconfirming evidence for hypotheses, to revise hypotheses despite the weight of evidence, and to generate new hypotheses from data beyond their initial ones.

Why do they make these mistakes?

People do not understand the systemic view of the earth because they do not have an opportunity to interact with large-scale or global processes. They do not engage in tasks in which these processes that extend over large scales of space or time might have an impact.

Most people do not understand the causes of temperature variation because they do not engage in activities where they have a direct impact. If they have come across the causes at all, it is typically in a declarative form, like in a text book.

People don't look for disconfirming evidence because of a natural bias, the so-called "confirmation bias".

Why don't they learn from these mistakes?

When people do make mistakes because they have based a conclusion on incorrect evidence, they typically modify their conclusion but don’t reassess the reasoning processes that led to the conclusion to see whether they have a faulty approach to inquiry in general.

What design can overcome the obstacles to learning in the real world?

A design that asks them to look at global processes and the interactions among various spheres can help students to understand the earth system approach.

A design that asks students to uncover and apply the causes of temperature variation can help them to learn about temperature change.

An activity in which students must compare their findings to others and be guided by the teacher to explore counter-evidence and alternative hypotheses can help students to develop the habit and understand the need for careful examination of data.

What makes this a meaningful task for the audience?

This task is modeled on the climate modeling activities that scientists do when they try to reconstruct historical climates or predict climate change. It would not be fair to say that climate modeling is an important task for the audience to be able to do per se. Instead, it was designed as an opportunity for students to learn other things through climate modeling.

While there is no immediate need for students to perform this task, they will find it meaningful because they enjoy the opportunity create their own artifacts, and they will become invested enough in their own worlds that they will be motivated to study the earth.

What are the challenges with this design?

It requires that the software be able to support students in both constructing their own color maps and successfully investigating the multiple variables that influence temperature on earth.

It requires that the teacher have a solid understanding of both content and process to be able to guide students.

It requires that the students find the invention task sufficiently motivating.

What specifically will students do?

The Create-A-World Activity is a sequence of inquiry activities designed to teach advanced middle school and high school students about the interactions between physical geography and climate. Over the course of the activity, learners create their own fictitious worlds by inventing data describing their worlds’ climate and geography. Learners are invited to invent any physical geography they want for their worlds, but they are asked to model the climate realistically based on scientific principles. In the course of the activity, students conduct an investigation of the earth’s climate using WorldWatcher to develop an understanding of climate to apply to their invented worlds. The activity, as described below, takes approximately 10 hours. The activity has been piloted in two one-week workshops conducted at Northwestern University with the author serving as instructor. A total of fifteen ninth and tenth grade students participated in the pilots.

The stages of the Create-A-World activity are:

Stage 1. Introduction: Thinking about global temperature. Students are each given a blank map of the world and six crayons and asked to draw their best guess of the average July temperature all around the world in the month of July [Fig. 2]. They are told that this activity is intended to get them thinking about differences in temperature around the world. Students then participate in a group discussion of their maps, the knowledge they drew on in constructing them, and the questions that the activity raised.


Figure 2: A student's hand-drawn map of July temperature.

Stage 2. Comparing their conjectures with "the real thing". Students are taught how to use the WorldWatcher paint tool to recreate their paper maps in the form of data visualizations. They are then taught how to access measured, global temperatures for July, and they engage in a series of activities in which they use WorldWatcher’s visualization and analysis tools in the course of comparing their own maps to the measured temperature for July. By the conclusion of this 45-minute introductory activity, students have learned the basics of geographic visualization and data analysis using WorldWatcher.

Stage 3. Laying out a planet. Students use the paint interface to create the topography for their worlds in the form of continent outlines and an elevation data set [Fig. 3]. In our pilot tests, we were interested to observe that some students chose to create worlds whose layouts are pictorial.


Figure 3: Elevation data for their new worlds created by two groups of students.

Stage 4. Investigating Earth. In order to create a temperature map for their own worlds, students conduct unstructured investigations of the earth to identify relationships between geography and temperature. Students use the tools and data in WorldWatcher to look for patterns that indicate relationships among variables. Following these investigations, they participate in a group discussion of the factors they identified. In the course of the discussion, the instructor challenges students to provide evidence for their theories and provides causal explanations for the relationships that they have identified, such as the impacts on temperature of incoming solar energy, surface and cloud reflectivity, atmospheric pressure, specific heat of land and water, and circulation in the oceans and atmosphere.


Figure 4: A ground cover (left) and temperature (right) visualization for an invented world.

Stage 5. Modeling climate for the new world. In the final phase of the activity students create the remaining data for their world making the assumption that their planet has the same incoming sunlight and tilt on its axis as earth. Students create ground cover and temperature visualization for their worlds [Fig. 4]. Creating data for their world generally requires that students return to the data for earth in order to quantify the principles uncovered in the previous phase. Once the worlds are completed, students present their worlds to each other and how they determined the temperatures in different areas.

What support will students have to help them learn from their experiences?

The additional support comes in the form of interaction with other students and in the discussions led by the teacher. These discussions provide students with the opportunity to acquire knowledge to support their observations, to compare their conclusions with those of other students, and to reflect on their conclusions and how they achieved them.