Date of Award

Spring 1-1-2012

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Atmospheric & Oceanic Sciences

First Advisor

Linnea Avallone

Second Advisor

Erin Furtak

Third Advisor

Noah Finkelstein

Fourth Advisor

Katja Friedrich

Fifth Advisor

Baylor Fox-Kemper


This dissertation shows the evolution of five undergraduate students' ideas of natural and anthropogenic climate change throughout a lecture hall course on climate change. This research was informed by conceptual change theory and students' inaccurate ideas of climate change. Subjects represented different levels of climate change understanding at the beginning of the course and were selected based on their scores on a climate change questionnaire. The study was designed to research how students' ideas changed throughout the course and compare trajectories of lower and higher achieving students. At the beginning, students had different levels of understanding, but as the semester continued, the lower-performing students progressed more than the higher-performing students. At the end of the course, all students described more ideas than they did at the beginning; however some of these ideas were inconsistent with the professors' instruction. Lower-performing students struggled more than the higher-performing students. Struggles included differentiating climate change and its causes, effects, and consequences from other environmental problems. Students also struggled with the idea that climate change is anthropogenic despite it being natural in the past. In order to understand that climate change is impacted by human forcings in addition to natural forcings, students developed the relationship that climate change is natural and humans are "speeding it up." They took time to integrate this relationship into their prior ideas. Three of the students constructed a definition of climate change that was different than the professor's. Two students defined "climate change" as only the natural aspects of climate change and reserved the anthropogenic changes for the term "global warming". For a third student, "climate change" included damming rivers, eutrophication, frog mutations, ozone depletion, and overfishing, which are environmental ailments but not climate change.