Earth's Orbit and Climate Change


Understanding Climate Change: Common Student Misconceptions

When you began the data activity, you came face to face with an illustration that has become infamous because it has perpetuated misconceptions about the Earth's orbit among students, as demonstrated in the classic film, "A Harvard Graduate Explains the Seasons" from "The Private Universe" series.

All learners come into an educational setting with preexisting ideas about how the natural world works. Some of these ideas will be accurate, and if that is the case, the teacher's job is to assist students in connecting new ideas to their prior knowledge. However, not all students' prior understanding is likely to be completely accurate. Whether it is a question of access to information or personal experience, or an artifact of a student's cognitive stage of development and ability to process completely spatial, temporal, abstract, or complex information, there are a number of scientific misconceptions that have been identified by researchers as common to students who are studying Earth science topics in the K-12 classroom.

Activity: Examining Earth Science Misconceptions

Examine the following list of common Earth science misconceptions in the context of orbital forcing of climate change on long (>10,000 year) time scales. As you do, consider these questions:

Do the misconceptions have the potential to confuse students who are learning about orbital forcing of climate cycles on long time scales?

What misconceptions, if any, have you seen among students in your own classroom?

Common Misconceptions related to Standard D: Continuity and Change Geologic Time and Change:

  1. The Earth was always as it is now, or that any changes that have occurred must have been sudden and comprehensive.
  2. Glaciers and mountains were built up in relatively short time spans, not something formed over time.
  3. Large numbers like a billion are incomprehensible in magnitude to some students.

Common Misconceptions related to Standard F: The Earth Seasons:

  1. The Earth is closer to the Sun in summer than in winter.
  2. Sunlight "bounces" off objects in winter.
  3. The tilt of the Earth's axis changes the planet's distance from the Sun throughout the year.
  4. The Earth travels in a highly exaggerated elliptical orbit placing it further or closer to the sun.

Common Misconceptions related to Scale Size and Distance:

  1. Drawings of the Sun, Earth, and moon only differ in scale size between half or double each other's diameter.
  2. Distance from the Sun is not much different from distance between planets.
  3. Sun and moon are drawn between one to four earth diameters away from Earth.
  4. Large distances are very difficult for students to comprehend.

Common Misconceptions related to Gravity in Space:

  1. Gravity relates only to things on Earth.
  2. Gravity is associated with air. If there is no air, there is no gravity.
  3. There is no gravity in space (including the moon).

How might you address these misconceptions as you develop a lesson plan about the natural cycles that may affect climate change?

How can you use technology such as the "Vostok Core & Milankovitch Cycles Climate Applet" with students to help address these misconceptions?

Global Climate Change Modules

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