Climate scientist Nicole Feldl wins NSF CAREER Award

Grant includes funding for climate research and for a cross-disciplinary environmental game project for students to develop a learning game about climate science

Nicole Feldl
Nicole Feldl

Nicole Feldl, assistant professor of Earth and planetary sciences, has received a Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to support her research on climate change.

Feldl's research focuses on understanding the mechanisms driving the amplification of global warming in the Arctic, where widespread summer melting of sea ice and warming winters are having far-reaching effects on ecosystems and economies.

The project also includes an outreach and education component in which Feldl will work with a team of undergraduates, in collaboration with Elizabeth Swensen, assistant professor of art and design: games and playable media, to develop a learning game about climate science.

The CAREER Awards are NSF's most prestigious awards in support of early-career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization. The award provides $800,000 over five years to support Feldl's research, education, and outreach activities.

Polar amplification

The Arctic is warming much faster than other parts of the planet, and this "polar amplification" of global warming is a robust prediction of global climate models. But climate scientists don't yet fully understand the complex interactions between the atmosphere and ocean that produce this effect.

"Ultimately, we're trying to understand the sensitivity of the Earth's climate system to increasing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, both in the global sense (that is, how much the average global temperature will increase for a given increase in greenhouse gases) and in terms of large-scale patterns of climate change," Feldl explained. "Understanding the physical processes, and how they’re represented in models, helps us reduce the uncertainty in the projections of what climates we might see in the future."

The implications of Arctic amplification of surface warming extend far beyond the Arctic because of the influence Arctic temperatures have on the jet stream and weather patterns across North America and Europe. Feldl will perform a series of experiments using climate models of increasing complexity designed to test the influence of different processes on Arctic amplification.

Learning game

For the outreach and education component, Feldl and Swensen will recruit a team of undergraduates to develop a learning game that can be used to teach K-12 students about climate science. The aim is to produce a science-based game that teaches players about the Earth's climate system by incorporating climate physics into the game mechanics. The grant includes funding for a graduate student who will oversee pilot studies to observe game play and gather feedback, as well as assessments of the game's effectiveness as a learning tool.

Swensen is an award-winning game designer with extensive experience developing educational games. Her recent work includes a NASA-funded game about microbial life for 7th- and 8th-grade classrooms.

"A game can have serious content and still be engaging," Swensen said. "This project offers a unique opportunity for undergraduates to develop a game for a targeted audience and with an intended outcome, where the practice of playing the game reinforces the material we want users to learn. I look forward to seeing what the students are able to make."

Feldl said she is excited about the collaboration with Swensen, noting that NSF only recently allowed applicants to add a faculty associate to a CAREER grant. "There's a lot of enthusiasm across campus for 'games for change' that tackle environmental issues. I'm grateful for the NSF's support of the collaboration, and I can't imagine a better home for it than Santa Cruz," she said.