Environmental Science Course Description

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Environmental Science

Course Description

Environmental Science is a rapidly evolving discipline, increasingly being called upon to answer some of the most pressing ecological problems of the time. As pressures on land, atmospheric and aquatic systems increase, the need for scientific information about environmental change and resource conservation is paramount. Understanding environmental systems and issues involves knowledge and skills from a variety of sciences. We need an interdisciplinary approach incorporating aspects of the physical and life sciences as well as expertise from non-scientific groups. Environmental Science seeks to develop the necessary skills and knowledge to measure, model and assess environmental change affecting both local and global environments. Emphasis is placed on field work and laboratory work.

Why Teach Environmental Science?

To many of my contemporaries, Environmental Science is considered a "mutt" science. By this they mean; environmental science is an hodgepodge of several different sciences, each discipline having an input, but neither gaining a controlling role. Additional conflict certainly arises, when other disciplines, outside of the realm of science are allowed to make important contributions. However, students soon understand that contributions from all interested shareholders, whatever their background and training, are crucial to making informed decisions. The questions and answers they generate are a result of stochastic thought and action.

The conglomeration of stakeholders allows for many different perspectives and approaches to the field. Researchers and interested individuals can focus on geology, economy, chemistry, politics, history, culture or psychology to just name a few. Essentially, any field can adopt an ecological standpoint when tackling environmental issues relevant to a more specific field. As a survey course students will look at topics from opposing points of view to gain different positions of the bigger picture.

As a so-called ‘soft science’, environmental science is open to the same rigorous scrutiny associated with science investigation. Ecological analysis requires that experiments be repeatable and that data must be comprehensive and above reproach. Published results and conclusions of environmental research are subject to peer review, and must meet specified criteria. Unfortunately, interpretation of environmental data and consequences can be quite subjective and both the scientist and the information often find itself at odds with the economic or political factions of a given area. Regrettably, the conflict of perception is frequently the focus of the opposition’s financial issues, and research is lost in the turmoil.

Environmental Ethics:

Who speaks for the trees? What are the rights of animals? Is there a land ethic? How can we achieve environmental justice? Such questions can be examined within the larger context of environmental philosophy. To be serious about the environment demands that we address complex issues such as patterns of consumption and production, population growth, environmental racism, conflict and war, the rights of animals, plants and land as well as the rights and responsibilities of persons, businesses and nations. Environmental Ethics is the examination of the moral relationship between human beings and the environment, and consider how to ethically defend our actions on the environment and its nonhuman contents. The focus of this portion of the course will pay particularly attention to understanding relevant ethical principles and values in order to defend and justify our choices in this regard. We also study the intrinsic value and moral status of the environment and its contents—animals, plants, ecosystems, etc.

The general purpose of this study is to introduce the student to the issues and theories of Environmental Philosophy, as well as develop the student's skill in applying ethical knowledge to particular situations. Specific objectives are:

  1. Present an “ethic of ecological justice” and explore its application to individual environmental cases

  2. Present current theoretical perspectives on the value and moral status of the environment and other nonhuman entities, including:

    1. Animal rights

    2. Biocentric ethics

    3. Ecocentric ethics

    4. Deep Ecology

    5. Ecofeminism

  3. Present perspectives on practical environmental issues

  4. Present various kinds environmentally conscious personal responses people make in the face of the environmental crisis, and provide time for students to consider how they might personally respond to the material covered in class

  5. The themes, concepts, problems, theories and methods of moral philosophy upon current environmental issues.

  6. Five approaches to environmental ethics (i.e., perspectives on man's relationship and responsibility to nature) -- viz. Anthropocentrism, Animal Liberation, Rights of Nature, Gaia-Centrism ("The Land Ethic"), Biophilia (evolved needs for nature).

Environmental Ethics Objectives

  1. Appreciation of the relationship between humans (especially yourself) and the environment

  2. Engagement with ideas of environmentalists and environmental philosophers on topics pertinent to environmental ethics

  3. Knowledge of basic principles, concepts and methods of environmental ethics

  4. Knowledge about arguments presented to support positions in environmental ethics

  5. Critical understanding of environmental issues, and the positions and perspectives of representative authors in environmental ethics—includes analysis and evaluation of ethical thinking in environmental ethics

  6. Persuasive writing about and defense of the student's own views on topics and problems in environmental ethics, and on positions others take on topics and problems in environmental ethics—including the principles of good writing

  7. Application of ethical principles to environmental related situations and problems

  8. Persuasive speaking about the student's own views about environmental ethics, including speaking persuasively about the views of others

Course Grading:

1. Unit Tests 20% approximately 3/quarter

2. Journal/Essays 5% daily

3. Presentations 10% approximately 2/quarter

4. Labs 20% approximately 6/quarter

5. Class Participation 10% daily

6. Research Project 35%

  • Class participation is encouraged, expected and graded.

  • Research project topic will be determined during the first quarter and completed by the end of the year. Time to work on the project will be allotted each week. Monthly presentations will be assessed by class rubric and make up 10% of project grade. Final presentation of the project will be scheduled during the class period in May, assessed by class rubric.

Environmental Science Course Objectives

Learning Outcomes

Science Skills

Students will be able to:

  1. Conduct scientific research, starting with well-defined protocols and progressing to open-ended research projects

  2. Work collaboratively to design research projects, interpret results, and critically analyze ideas and conclusions

  3. Define a research question, then plan and carry out a study to address the question

  4. Analyze data and draw conclusions about Earth’s Environment

  5. Write a concise and accurate summary of methods, results, and conclusions

  6. Receive critique from fellow students to help revise or justify research reports and presentations

  7. Critically analyze fellow students’ research to determine whether each study is based on a sound research design

  8. Provide constructive criticism of fellow students’ data analysis, interpretations, and conclusions

Environmental Concepts:

Students will understand that

  1. The Earth is a finite unit, all its resources are fixed

  2. Human ecological problems are essentially a product of over-population, gender rights and education

  3. Ecology is the study of living things and their interactions with each other and the physical environment

  4. Population ecology is the study of how populations change in size and location

  5. Community ecology is the study of how organisms interact with each other and how groups of organisms change over time

  6. Ecosystem ecology is the study of how organisms interact with the nonliving environment

  7. Invasive species are an important threat to biodiversity in North America

  8. Biological control is one of several alternatives to controlling invasive species

  9. Monitoring, laboratory, and field studies all contribute to our understanding of ecological systems

  10. Humans have changed the delicate balance of nature and in doing so have put themselves in jeopardy

  11. Humans can reverse the current negative environmental trends with technology already in existence

  12. Scientists work both individually and collaboratively; reviewing each other’s work to provide feedback on experimental design and interpretation of results. These “peer reviews” are used to make decisions about what research gets funded and what results get published in scientific journals

  13. Scientific understandings are tentative, subject to change with new discoveries. Peer review among scientists helps sort genuine discoveries from incomplete or faulty work

Core Curriculum

Introduction to Environmental Science

Students will be able to:

  • Understand why environmental problems are complex and interrelated

  • Realize that environmental problems involve social, cultural, political, and economic issues--not just scientific issues

  • Understand that all organisms have an impact on their surroundings

  • Describe the three categories into which most environmental problems fall


  • Explain how the population crisis and the consumption crisis contribute to environmental problems

  • Differentiate between ethics and morals

  • Define personal ethics

  • List three conflicting attitudes toward nature

  • Distinguish between renewable and nonrenewable resources

  • Use a decision making model to make a decision about an environmental issue

  • Name values that are important in making decisions about the environment

Communities: Structure and Dynamics

  • Define the roles of producers, herbivore, carnivore, omnivore, scavenger, parasite, and decomposer

  • Describe energy flow in a ecosystem

  • Relate the concept of food web and food chain to trophic levels

  • Explain the cycling of nutrients

  • Define keystone species and their impact on biodiversity.

  • Define a food web.

  • Define and diagram flows of material or energy between trophic levels.

  • name the levels of the trophic pyramid


  • Define evolution and distinguish between microevolution and macroevolution.

  • Explain the process of evolution by natural selection

  • Explain the concept of adaptation

  • Explain the concept of coevolution

  • Define the term extinction

  • Define symbiosis and give examples of mutualistic, commensal, and parasitic symbioses.

Terrestrial Ecosystems

  • Describe secondary and primary succession

  • Explain the importance of primary species

  • Define Biome

  • Associate typical plants and animals with the various biomes

  • Distinguish between the biotic and abiotic factors in an ecosystem

  • Distinguish between habitat and niche

  • Explain the five major types of species interactions and give examples of each

  • List some of the components of an ecosystem

  • Define ecological succession.

  • Describe pioneer, intermediate, and climax seres.

  • List the significant features, alternative names, and locations of the following biomes:

    • Tropical Rain Forest.

    • Tropical Deciduous Forest.

    • Tropical Savanna.

    • Desert.

    • Temperate Deciduous Forest.

    • Temperate Shrubland.

    • Grassland.

    • Boreal Forest.

    • Tundra.

    • Temperate Rain Forest.

    • Alpine Biome.

    • Coastal Pine Forest

  • Explain the important characteristics of the tropical, temperate, boreal, and polar climatic zones and give the latitudinal range of each.

  • Describe the vertical zonation of forests


  • Identify the four parts of the atmosphere that interact to make weather

  • Identify the gases in the atmosphere that cause the greenhouse effect and describe how the greenhouse effect may change Earth's surface

  • Identify "greenhouse gases" and explain how they cause the "greenhouse effect"

  • List human attributes that may be responsible for global warming and cooling Earth's atmosphere

  • Explain the relationship between technology and global warming

  • Name the major causes of air pollution

  • Distinguish between primary and secondary pollutants

  • Explain how we could reduce air pollution

  • Describe some possible health effects of air pollution

  • Describe the job of the Environmental Protection Agency

  • List the benefit of the Clean Air Act

  • Give examples of human-made sources of radiation, and explain how human-made sources differ from natural sources of radiation

Aquatic Ecosystems

  • Compare the ability of human-made channels to support wildlife with that of natural rivers and streams

  • Identify the types of organisms that are found in the following habitats: surface film, open water, bottom, water's edge

  • Identify four different habitats found in bodies of water and give examples of organisms that live in each habitat

  • Draw a food web that includes ten or more aquatic organisms

  • Give examples of point and nonpoint sources of nutrients

  • Describe the steps that must be taken in order to control plant growth with herbicide to avoid fish fills

  • Identify three types of factors which affect water quality

  • Explain why fresh water is a precious resource

  • Describe our main sources of fresh water

  • Explain why fresh water is often in short supply

  • Classify the kinds of water pollutants

  • Describe the impact of water pollution on people and the environment

  • Distinguish among the several types of peatlands (bog, blanket mire, quaking bog, and fen).

  • Describe human impacts on flooded grasslands.

  • Define a watershed.

  • Distinguish between riffle and pool.

  • Define an estuary.

  • List the major characteristics of the following marine zones

    • intertidal

    • pelagic

    • neritic

    • oceanic

    • benthic

  • Distinguish between the littoral and supralittoral zones

  • List the characteristics of the

    • rocky intertidal

    • sandy beach

    • mudflat

    • salt marsh

    • mangrove forest

Human Ecology

  • Explain why providing adequate food for all of the world's people is so difficult

  • Describe the advantages and disadvantages of the green revolution

  • List the physical, chemical, and biological factors responsible for soil formation

  • Describe the processes of soil erosion by water and wind

  • Describe the desertification and how it can be prevented

  • Explain why pest control is often necessary

  • Describe alternatives to pesticides


  • State the two energy laws and give examples that demonstrate each law

  • Describe turnover within ecosystems.

  • Explain how the laws of thermodynamics constrain energy and material flows in ecosystems.

  • Define primary production.

  • Compare energy efficiencies

  • Classify energy sources as renewable or nonrenewable

  • List reasons why it is important that we seek alternatives to fossil fuels

  • Describe the role of the turbine and the generator in the production of electricity

  • Rank the major sources of energy used to produce electricity and classify the energy sources as renewable or nonrenewable

  • Give advantages and disadvantages of each of the methods used to produce electricity

  • Identify possible environmental problems associated with each energy source

  • Give several reasons why nuclear power has not become as important a source of electricity as anticipated

  • Describe methods of conserving energy

  • Describe several alternative energy sources

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