Undergraduate Students' Mental Models of the Climate System

Jignesh Mehta, Purdue University


The climate, being a complex system, is difficult for people to understand. If better education is to be designed to improve the public's understanding of the subject, educators must be aware of the prior knowledge that students bring with them to the classroom since it is through that prism that people make sense of the world. As such, the aim of this exploratory study was to capture undergraduates' mental models of the climate system. The study consisted of two parts and utilized a mixed method approach. First a quantitative, open-ended survey was designed and administered to 219 participants to investigate their understanding of the climate. This was followed by qualitative, semi-structured interviews of 19 participants. Open coding was used to analyze the data. Capturing the students' understanding involved ascertaining their conceptions of the components of the climate system, as well as investigating their understanding of the interactions between the components, and what feedbacks are present. Students' ability to apply system thinking was also investigated. It was found that students' mental models of the climate system were incomplete and inconsistent, with water cycle components and interactions most frequently mentioned. Participants also displayed causal, linear thinking with little mention of feedback, and had difficulty solving an abstract climate system problem. The results suggest that system concepts such as feedbacks and delays should be explicitly emphasized when teaching about the climate.




Hirsch, Purdue University.

Subject Area

Science education

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