In the hot research areas of air quality and climate change, computer models are essential tools of the trade.

Researchers use these models to understand current conditions and project how human activities will affect future patterns for topics ranging from Arctic ice cap melting to drought conditions in the Southwest to the potential for insect infestations.

Tim VanReken and colleagues in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering have received a National Science Foundation grant to improve the way students learn the fundamental concepts of atmospheric chemistry and to help them better understand the scientific method.  The research team includes Shane Brown, Tom Jobson, and Serena Chung.  A key part of their effort will be development of student-friendly interfaces to make state-of-the-art atmospheric models more accessible to undergraduates.

The researchers began thinking about how they might improve the teaching of atmospheric principles as they were teaching graduate courses in atmospheric chemistry. They wanted their students to examine realistic atmospheric problems, but solving them was too complicated for the chalk board.

Using research-quality atmospheric models in their standard form would have meant spending large amounts of time learning to run the models — rather than learning concepts.  The researchers began thinking about ways to take high-end research models, make them accessible for students and use them for teaching.  Soon, the researchers began looking at the undergraduate level as well.

“The sooner the students start using these models, the better off they’re going to be,’’ said VanReken.

At the same time, the researchers came to the realization that the models provided an opportunity for students to use an inquiry-based approach to learning concepts. Education research shows that students do better when they have hands-on tools for learning rather than traditional lectures.

As part of the grant, the researchers are developing learning modules in which students can use the student computer models to examine real-world problems while learning atmospheric chemistry principles.  The modules will be grounded in the scientific method; that is, students will have to develop a hypothesis, design and conduct experiments to test the hypothesis, and then analyze their results.

 “Using the computer modeling tools, the learning can incorporate the scientific method,’’ said VanReken. “We hope then that we’re building an opportunity to have better learning outcomes.’’

The researchers will be incorporating the use of the simple atmospheric computer models into a variety of undergraduate classes, ranging from Engineering 120, which is students’ first introduction to engineering, to senior electives and graduate courses.  Students participating in the laboratory for atmospheric research’s Summer Research Experience for Undergraduates program also will have the opportunity to use them. 

The tools, VanReken said, will “not just be a black box’’ that spits out an answer. Rather, at a level appropriate to their abilities, students will have control over setting up the model and conducting their own data analysis.

As part of the project, the researchers also will be assessing whether or not the models help students better learn the atmospheric science concepts.

“We think that having the students use the inquiry-based approach will mean that fundamentals are learned better and retained better for the future,’’ said VanReken.