Toronto high school students are being encouraged to wreak environmental havoc on imaginary populations — with the goal of learning more about adapting to climate change.

A new course, called "Studying Climate Change, Health and Adaptation," began as a workshop for high school students but is now part of the curriculum.

It was created by Brad Bass, an Environment Canada climate scientist who works out of the University of Toronto's Centre for Environment. The course was built around a computer program he developed called COBWEB, for Complexity and Organized Behaviour Within Environmental Bounds.

The program allows students to create a population living in a certain environment and then change that environment to see how the population reacts over a period of time. For example, students can create an extreme heat event in a large city with limited cooling centres. They can adjust the age and health makeup of the population and then see what happens to them during the hot spell.

Using the program, students can watch a week-long scenario progress over a matter of minutes or seconds.

"It (COBWEB) allows them to do what I would call 'what-if' scenarios," explained Bass, adding, "we have a lot of questions. What if we do this, or what if we do that? And a computer model helps anybody explore that question."

The Toronto District School Board and Bass developed the course module with the idea of making the material available to school boards across the country.

"We are going to put it up on our website and it will be available as a PDF [computer file] to any school in the country … to any school in the world, for that matter," says Stephan Bibla, science and technology program co-ordinator for the Toronto District School Board.

Paul Hackl is excited about the climate change lesson plan. The Grade 12 geography teacher at Toronto's Riverdale Collegiate helped design it. He also asked Bass to conduct the workshop with his students.

"It gave students an instantaneous response to the big question of climate change: If it's not going to happen in my lifetime, why should I care?" Hackl said.

"It gives them a light-bulb moment. Suddenly they realize that this is very serious business."

The course was developed with funds from Environment Canada. It was officially published in June and will be offered in 100 Toronto schools this year.