During a break in the workshop last week, Cecilia Bitz and I managed to compare notes on our undergrad courses. We’ve both been exploring how to teach ideas about climate modeling to students who are not majoring in earth sciences. Cecilia’s course on Weather and Climate Prediction is a little more advanced than mine, as she had a few math and physics pre-requisites, while mine was open to any first year students. For example, Cecilia managed to get the students to run CAM, and experiment with altering the earth’s orbit. It’s an interesting exercise, as it should lead to plenty of insights into connections between different processes in the earth’s system. One of the challenges is that earth system models aren’t necessarily geared up for this kind of tinkering, so you need good expertise in the model being used to understand which kinds of experiments are likely to make sense. But even so, I’m keen to explore this further, as I think the ability to tinker with such models could be an important tool for promoting a better understanding of how the climate system works, even for younger kids

Part of what’s missing is elegant user interfaces. EdGCM is better, but still very awkward to use. What I really want is something that’s as intuitive as Angry Birds. Okay, so I’m going to have to compromise somewhere – nonlinear dynamics are a bit more complicated than the flight trajectories of avian slingshot.

But that’s not all – someone needs to figure out what kinds of experiments students (and school kids) might want to perform, and provide the appropriate control widgets, so they don’t have mess around with code and scripts. Rich Loft tells me there’s a project in the works to do something like this with CESM – I’ll looking forward to that! In the meantime, Rich suggested two examples of simple simulations of dynamical systems that get closer to what I’m looking for:

  • The Shodor Disease model that lets you explore the dynamics of epidemics, with people in separate rooms, where you can adjust how much they can move between rooms, how the disease works, and whether immunization is available. Counter-intuitive lesson: crank up the mortality rate to 100% and (almost) everyone survives!
  • The Shodor Rabbits and Wolves simulation, which lets you explore population dynamics of predators and prey. Counter-intuitive lesson: double the lifespan of the rabbits and they all die out pretty quickly!


  1. Dear Steve,

    FU Berlin proposed a website with climate simulation for students.

    Please, see :

    the talk :
    Web based experiments with Earth system models of different complexity used for education at Freie University, Ingo Kirchner (FU Berlin)

    Nice to read you blog.
    See you

  2. andrewcharles

    I think you’re underestimating the amount of physics and numerical methods that has gone into Angry Birds 😉

    MIght be good to find out if the user friendly GUIs you’re talking about exist for other simulation sciences like molecular modelling. I think this sort of thing works well with simple models like the Lotka-Volterra and epidemic models you mention, but is much much harder with computationally expensive models. Some of the simpler parametric global climate models (as distinct from circulation-resolving GCMs) fit into the first category.

  3. You might be interested in Excelets, low overhead applets.

  4. Pete Dunkelberg

    This isn’t exactly what you are looking for, but it’s worth checking.

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