EPS Best in eLearning 2015-16 Highly Commended Finalist: EART10111


The annual EPS Best in eLearning competition is designed to highlight resources that stand out as examples of good practice which have positively engaged students, and to reflect the wide range of innovative learning design that exists across the Faculty.

This year students made over 700 nominations for 270 course units. The EPS eLearning team is pleased to announce the following course unit was one of four to receive a commendation.

Highly Commended Finalist

  • EART10111 Planet Earth : David Schultz, Jonathan Fairman (School of Earth, Atmospheric and Environmental Sciences)

Comments from students:

“Everything was readily available, allowing for easy revision, but also making me more interested in the subject.”

“We regularly engaged in interactive games on our phones in lectures with the opportunity to win small prizes, being quizzed on lecture material.”

“The project about Earth simulation ‘BUILD YOUR OWN EARTH’ was challenging but really helpful. The fact of playing around with the online program and testing any idea you had is amazing. While doing the project, the tasks and simulations encourage you to do further research to understand what is going on and learn more about it. I learnt a lot about the Earth, its systems, and what would happen if any of them is altered.”

Comments from the course tutors:

What was the most successful aspect of eLearning elements in your course unit?

“Build Your Own Earth is the centerpiece of Planet Earth. The climate model simulations serve as the glue that holds the lecture content from the five elements of the Earth’s climate system (hydrosphere, atmosphere, biosphere, lithosphere, and cryosphere) together. We aim for the simulations to synthesise the lecture content, with the ability to abstract beyond the content, to see how the climate varies across the Earth and affects the sedimentology, distribution of life, and weather.

The Build Your Own Earth assignment walks the student through some of the simulations, providing them ample opportunity to explore on their own. Questions are short-answer and multiple-choice. Two essay questions are added at the end. The first essay question asks for comments to improve the Build Your Own Earth interface. The second essay question is the following:
“Pick a scientific question that you could answer with simulations that are not currently in BYOE. Design a simulation or series of simulations that you would like to perform. Hypothesize what results that you might expect. Explain the simulation and the hypothesized results. Explain your answer.”

Although some students did not engage with this question or missed the point, a few provided elaborate answers that included graphics from peer-reviewed paleoclimate articles to explain what they might expect. One comment by a student from the end-of-the-semester evaluation provided the following thoughts about the assignment.

“The BYOE [assignment] made you think for yourself and explain your reasoning, showing innovation and meaning the answers were not just on the internet. …. This was a very good assignment because it made people think for themselves and make their own hypotheses and assumptions. Plus, the last question is really what I want to be asked at University. I want to write innovatively and not just the right answer in a textbook.”

It is this response to the assignment that is the reason that we created Build Your Own Earth. We are understandably proud that a first-year first-semester student has this level of maturity at university to inspire us to continue to develop this wonderful eLearning resource further.

At the end of the semester, students were asked about whether they learned from the assignment and whether they felt it was a good use of their time. More students had favorable opinions about the assignment (56%) than unfavorable opinions (25%, with 33% neutral), although more work is needed to continue to improve the assignment and make it more relevant to their learning in future years.

Finally, Build Your Own Earth has been written up as a peer-reviewed journal a article and submitted to the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society (impact factor = 11.8). The article discusses the motivation for the project, how the model is formulated, the various simulations performed, how it is being used in teaching and research.”

What was the rationale behind your main eLearning features?

“Imagine being able to take a planet and select its characteristics: distance from the Sun; tilt of the axis of rotation; rotation rate; greenhouse gas concentrations; location of continents, oceans and mountains; etc. Imagine selecting these characteristics from a web page, and pushing the “Go” button. A climate model runs and produces the climate on that world nearly instantaneously, returning the results to view and analyze. The results would engage users in understanding the controls on Earth’s climate. Sounds fun, huh?
This was our original vision: to create this dynamic, live interface for users and to take advantage of the creativity of a large user base to pursue scientific questions about the Earth…

Unfortunately, realizing such a vision is not currently possible with the speed of today’s computers. Instead, we scaled back on this vision. The result was Build Your Own Earth (www.buildyourownearth.com). We preselected about 50 Earths, performed the computer simulations already, and created visualizations of the output. The 50 Earths included the present climate, projected future climates, paleoclimate through the last Ice Age back to 600 million years ago, and alien Earths (aquaplanet, terra planet, ice planet). An assignment was created that walked students through the tool and some of the simulations. The questions were aimed at getting the students to appreciate three things.

1. Despite the large number of configurations of Earth presented in Build Your Own Earth, the simulations produce some basic characteristics of the general circulation, such as the Intertropical Convergence Zone, dry subtropics, and midlatitude jet streams. Although the details of these features may change from simulation to simulation, their consistency tells us something about the stability of the planetary-scale circulation.

2. The global-average temperature is a relatively simple metric that fails to illustrate the wonderfully rich patterns associated with the planetary-scale circulation and the annual cycle. These simulations might cause some to reconsider the claim that certain geological time periods are “hot” or “dry” in geological time. This lesson provides an interesting thought exercise for geology students who might be tempted to overgeneralize the results of their single field site.

3. It is these rich patterns that control the local climate of temperature, precipitation, and wind, which then determine the various ecosystems for plant and animal life, as well as sedimentary environments.

We recorded four short videos that provided more guidance for students on using Build Your Own Earth and interpreting the climate-model output.

Build Your Own Earth has been used in the Our Earth MOOC, as well as for undergraduate dissertation research, public engagement, and undergraduate recruitment. It has truly become a multipurpose educational tool.”

2015-16 Winner

2015-16 Highly Commended Finalists (in alphabetical order)

2015-16 Commended Finalists (in alphabetical order)

We’d like to thank the students who nominated their course units and provided valuable feedback as well as the nominated course tutors who have recognised and responded to the needs of the learner, developing resources that add real value to their course teaching.

If you would like to review the eLearning resources on your course unit or programme please contact us via elearning@manchester.ac.uk


About Sharon Gardner