Utilizing Facebook Groups to Facilitate Peer Discussion in an Online Course about Regional Climate Modeling

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Tuesday, 6 January 2015: 4:45 PM
125AB (Phoenix Convention Center - West and North Buildings)
Morgan Brown Yarker, Yarker Consulting, Cedar Rapids, IA; and M. D. S. Mesquita

The theme of this year's AMS meeting is “Fulfilling the Vision of Weather, Water, Climate information for Every Need, Time, and Place”, which this project is striving to accomplish by making knowledge about regional climate modeling accessible to anyone in any location, regardless of their resources. This is possible through the development of a free online course and educational version of the Weather Research and Forecasting (WRF) model. These courses are grounded in the social constructivism education theory, so the students learn content while designing a research project and running WRF to collect the data for the project. However, one of the most difficult aspects of social constructivism to meet when utilizing an online course is the peer-to-peer dialogue. To rectify this problem, we began using social media to facilitate conversation and have already seen a vast improvement in peer-to-peer communication than we had using the course forums. Moreover, within the first month of opening the group, we had created a community of over 160 regional climate modelers from around the world, sharing information, asking questions, and creating research projects relating to climate change.

What makes this project unique is that it is the only freely available online course that teaches participants how to run WRF. Currently, short-term workshops are used to train people how to use computer models, which require a large amount of travel funding. It has also been observed that many participants who recently completed capacity building courses still view climate and weather models as a metaphorical “black box”, where data goes in and results comes out. Additionally, there is evidence that these participants still lack a basic understanding of the climate system. Both of these issues limit the ability of some scientists to go beyond running a model based on rote memorization of the process. As a result, they are unable to solve problems regarding run-time errors, thus becoming dependent on expert modelers (Mesquita et al. 2011). Therefore, the courses at m2lab.org (Mesquita 2013) were developed.

This project was originally created to provide an educationally robust method to provide scientists and decision makers in developing countries with the opportunity to learn about regional climate modeling in order to help their countries mitigate and adapt to climate change. Focus was on developing countries because the IPCC (2007) provides evidence that acknowledges that climate change creates as a significant challenge to sustainable development by the international community. However, we have found that novice modelers, graduate students, and even some undergraduate students from all over the world (including the United States and Europe) have been utilizing the course in order to learn how to run WRF. This has created a very large, informal community of scientists from around the world sharing information, asking questions, and developing research projects that involve studying climate change.

When this project first started, we relied on course forums to generate student discussion. One of the primary problems faced for the first 35 participants who completed the course was that the forums were underused, with approximately 40 total posts across the 8 tutorials. The majority of these were technical questions about Unix and runtime errors, with only 2 instances of peer-to-peer interaction. This indicates that effective dialogue did not occur. As a result, the tutors chose to change the social interaction for an incoming group of participants, who were encouraged to participate in a Facebook group, which is administered by the course tutors. Although full data analysis will not be completed until the course ends on December 1, 2014, preliminary analysis indicates that during the first 2 tutorials, more discussion has occurred than in the previous analysis using the course forums. Most notably, peer-to-peer interaction has occurred in more than 15 discussion threads, with several iterations. The number of people involved in the discussions has increased, and the discussion topics have been relevant to the course, but more informal in nature. Discussion topics brought up on the Facebook group include philosophical questions, such as “what is a model?”, “can models be perfect?”, and the relationship between math and science. There were also application questions, like asking students how they would set up a model run for a given situation, such as a major hair event in Russia or a typhoon event. Additionally, technical problems that participants post about have frequently been solved by other participants who experienced similar problems, which has been helpful for both the participants as well as the tutors.

For the presentation, further analysis will be performed to compare the forum use to the Facebook group use as the current group of participants continues the course. Additionally, participant feedback will be included, which should provide and indicator of how motivational the Facebook group was for the participants.

References: Mesquita, M.d.S. (2013) e-WRF: WRF for Educational Purposes [Computer program]. Available at m2lab.org

Mesquita, M.d.S., Veldore, V., Yarker, M.B. and Lamadrid, A. (2011). Long-Term E-Capacity Building (LEAD): A New Approach for Climate Science Research. Conference Of the Parties (COP) Publication, TERI Press, New Dehli.

IPCC. (2007). Climate change 2007: The physical science basis. Cambridge UK and New York, NY: Cambridge Univ. Press.