Colleges and universities are often looking at their degree programs and course offerings to see what changes may need to be made.  Implementing new courses and programs is a big undertaking for a university and careful consideration must be given to the courses that make up a particular program.  

This study, in particular, the methodology used in the study, would be of special interest to those who are tasked with designing and implementing programs, or those interested in environmental studies.


The authors of this study,wanted to find out how common it was for courses that covered topics in human-induced (anthropogenic) climate change to be part of undergraduate marine science and environmental science degree programs in the United States.  The study was intended to help inform program design decisions at universities with these types of programs of study and to serve as a baseline measure for the prevalence of climate change courses at universities as climate issues become more and more important and the need for a better-educated public and workforce grows.

Data Collection

Population and Sample. For this study, the population was made up of all institutions of higher education that offered undergraduate degree programs in marine and/or environmental science (or related fields).  Using publicly-available sources, the researchers compiled a list of colleges that offered the relevant degrees.  Thus, the sample for the study was the entire population as best the researchers could determine.

In all, 86 colleges and universities were included in the study, and there were a total of 125 marine science and environmental science programs at these schools.

Each institution was classified by several characteristics, such as control status (e.g., public or private), highest degree offered, size of student population, and geographic location.  Each of these classifications had several sub-categories.  These categories were used later to determine if schools with certain characteristics were more likely to have climate change courses than other schools.

Data organization.  For each college with a relevant degree program, the researchers “identified required and elective courses that placed equal or greater emphasis on anthropogenic climate change as natural climate change” (p. 36).  The course descriptions for these courses were studied, and each course was rated on a scale of 1 (little to none) to 5 (almost exclusive) based on its coverage of anthropogenic climate change issues.

Multiple readers rated each course, and these ratings were averaged to give each course a final rating.  If there were wide discrepancies in the ratings of a course, discussions were held to finalize the rating.  Each course was also classified as being required or an elective in the degree program.

The researchers used a form of text analysis to determine if and how the courses at each school fit the climate-change classification.  Key terms served as indicators of the main themes that helped them rate each course.  The main themes that were used were evidence, causes, mechanisms, consequences, and solutions.

Data Analysis

Data analysis included calculating the percentage of degree programs that included at least one climate change course.  These percentages were determined for each of the classifications and sub-classifications of the institutions in the study.  Chi-square statistical tests were run to see if there were significant differences in the number of climate change courses among the various classifications of schools.  A chi-square test is regularly used to determine relationships between categorical variables.

Statistical tests were also run to compare the frequency of such courses between marine science and environmental science programs.  Further analysis was carried out on the frequency of the main themes in course descriptions.  For all tests, a 95% confidence level was used (α = 0.05).


The study found that, overall, about one-third (37%) of the marine science and environmental science programs in the United States offered at least one course that covers anthropogenic climate change issues.  The chi-square statistical tests showed that there were no significant differences in climate change course offerings based on location (p = 0.410), control status (= 0.246), size of student population (p = 0.295), and degree program (marine vs. environmental science) (p = 0.132).  There was a significant difference (p = 0.050) based on highest degree offered, however, with climate change courses being significantly more prevalent at baccalaureate colleges and doctoral universities than at master’s colleges.

Overall, about one-third (37%) of the marine science and environmental science programs in the United States offered at least one course that covers anthropogenic climate change issues

There were also significant differences in how the courses were offered for both marine science programs (p = 0.008) and environmental science programs (p = 0.025), with more courses being offered as free electives than as either major electives or required courses.  One other statistically-significant difference was found in the analysis of the main themes.  This was that solutions to climate change were included in course descriptions significantly less (p = 0.031) than the other four themes.

Limitations.  The authors note that because course descriptions from the most-recently-available college catalog were used as the source of the data, there were some limitations.  One of these is that the accuracy of the descriptions could not be (or were not) verified.  A second limitation is that the catalogs that were available may not have included new climate change courses or courses that were not offered on a regular basis and thus were not included in the catalog.  


This study in the field of science education used a combination of text analysis and statistical tests to determine the prevalence of anthropogenic climate change courses in undergraduate marine science and environmental science degree programs.  Using chi-square tests to compare the percentages of programs with such courses, the researchers found that they were more common at institutions whose highest degree was a bachelor’s or doctorate and that they were most commonly offered as free electives.



Vlietstra, L. S., Mrakovcich, K. L., Futch, V. C., & Stutzman, B. S. (2016.) Anthropogenic climate change in undergraduate marine and environmental science programs in the United States. Journal of College Science Teaching, 45(5), 34-43.

Author: Neil Starr