Great Lakes MOOC builds on SIRE-supported online education

February 17, 2015 | by Jill Sakai

In spring 2013, UW–Madison atmospheric sciences professor Steve Ackerman and outreach specialist Margaret Mooney debuted an online undergraduate course on climate and climate change. Shortly afterward, however, two major science advisory groups released new comprehensive climate science reports that made the course material out of date.

With support from the UW–Madison Office of Sustainability’s Sustainability Innovation in Research and Education (SIRE) award program, Ackerman and Mooney were able to update and improve the course. In fall 2014, they were able to take it online once again for UW–Madison undergraduates.

Mooney and Ackerman have now leveraged their efforts into a massive open online course (MOOC), “Changing Weather and Climate in the Great Lakes Region,” that is reaching thousands of learners throughout Wisconsin and beyond.

Some of the elements of the MOOC reflect material newly developed for the undergraduate climate change course, such as an interactive activity exploring the relative environmental impact of disposable plastic versus reusable metal knives, forks, and spoons.

“The courses overlap a lot. They have the same final goal,” Mooney says. “All our work we did last fall informs us – everything we’ve learned about online education prepared us for the MOOC.”

She’s also excited about the opportunity to tap into the research potential of such a large and diverse student base as that offered by a MOOC. The SIRE award also supported an evaluation of how well the 50 students in the online course could understand and interpret news media reports about climate science. That effort is now being expanded to the 6,000 learners enrolled in the MOOC, which will give the researchers an improved view of how well people understand media coverage of climate issues.

“Most of our work is in climate change education and climate mitigation sustainability. We’re trying to get people to tread lighter,” Mooney says.

People can still sign up for the “Changing Weather and Climate in the Great Lakes Region” MOOC through March 30. For registered students, the course content will continue to be accessible for several months.