Environmental Science

Send by email

This course is taught in conjunction with the Environmental Politics class offered by the history department in the fall semester. We will focus on educating students to become discerning and actively engaged citizens regarding a range of environmental dilemmas. The first semester starts with an introduction to the history and philosophy of science, and aims to help students become objective, fair minded, mulit-dimensional thinkers. We then concentrate on the biology of soil, plants and food production, population dynamics and the challenges presented by an ever-expanding global population and the importance of biodiversity and its conservation. The second semester involves an in depth study of renewable and non-renewable energy sources and the future of energy,  and ends with a major group project that responds to a prompt from the Catlin Gabel community (for example, the class of 2011 designed a rainwater harvesting system with Engineers Without Borders, and the Class of 2012 will work with the Global Education trip to Ecuador in response to the needs of the community being visited). Recommended corequisite: Environmental Politics (senior history elective).


Unit Essential Questions Content Skills and Processes Resources
Know Your Sources

In terms of our environment:

  • How do we know what we know?
  • What are our sources of information?
  • How reliable are these sources?
  • How do we assess the reliability of the information we are presented?
  • How does the scientific community police itself, and determine which research should be published?
  • How can we detect bias in the media?

Compare two films on global warming (An Inconvenient Truth vs The Great Global Warming Swindle)

Find and compare popular, contradictory websites focusing on a variety of environmental controversies

Learn to detect fallacies in an argument

Examine media bias with regard to environmental issues

Learn about the peer review process, and study examples of where the system has fallen short (MMR controversy in the UK, climate change papers)


  • Critical thinking
  • avoiding bias
  • Considering multiple points of view before establishing a position

The Thinker's Guide - How to Detect Media Bias & Propaganda (Paul & Elder, 2008)

The Thinker's Guide to Fallacies (Paul & Elder, 2008)

Peer Review and the Acceptance of New Scientific Ideas (Sense about Science, 2004)


Soil and Food

How is soil formed?

What are the essential constituents of a healthy soil?

How do you keep soil healthy and productive in the long term?

What do plants need to grow and reproduce successfully?

How is photosynthesis in many crop plants different from the plants studied previously in Science I?

How do we introduce foreign genetic material into plants?

What are the potential risks and benefits of genetic modification of food crops?



Introduction of the ecological concept of soil formation and primary succession

Revisiting photosynthesis, comparing C3 to C4 pathways

Studying the practice of intenstive farming, use of agrochemicals and monocultures

Review of plant reproduction

Extended investigation into plant mineral requirements

Review of DNA, protein synthesis and an introduction to methods of plant genetic modification

Genetic transformation lab

In depth study of the arguments surrounding the use of GMOs in agriculture


  • Experimental design
  • group collaboration
  • Collecting and organizing a large data set
  • statistical analysis of data
  • Writing a clear, unbiased summary paper of a current controversial topic

Visits to Oregon Tilth and a genetics lab

Multiple documentaries on Genetic Modification (both pro and anti-GMOs)

Original, recent scientific papers from peer-reviewed journals

Population and Biodiversity

How do we measure animal and plant populations?

What are the factors that influence population size in nature?

What is meant by the "carrying capacity" for a species?

What are the major patterns in global human population growth?

What challenges are these patterns presenting?

Should population growth be controlled? If so, how?

How many different species are there on the planet? How do we calculate this?

Are we losing biodiversity? Why is this significant? Why should we care?

What can we do to conserve natural habitats and biodiversity?

Introduction to ecological sampling methods

Review of key ecology terminology and concepts

Researching different methods for calculating human carrying capacity

Examining the different factors that affect the ability of the earth to sustain an exponentially increasing population


Using statistics with ecological data

Understanding the limitations of various sampling methods

Researching and writing a paper on a topic of the student's choosing in relation to sustainability

Identifying patterns in large databases (IUCN Red List Data)

Conservation Biology for All - (Navjot S. Sodhi and Paul R. Ehrlich Eds, 2010)

State of the Planet - David Attenborough (DVD series)

IUCN Red List Data and associated documents

Recent peer-reviewed articles from a variety of journals


How are fossil fuels extracted and refined?

How do combustion engines work?

What are the alternatives to the combustion engine for personal transport? Are they necessarily better for the environment?

How is electricity generated and distributed in different places throughout the USA and the rest of the world?

Can we live without fossil fuels?

What are the challenges associated with the renewable alternatives?

Is nuclear power a safe, affordable and long-term option?

Write a paper on fuel cells

Prepare and Participate in a formal class debate on nuclear energy

Present to the class on an alternative energy technology

Learn how different types of engine work

Examine international data on energy consumption


Prepare for a formal debate

Give a presentation to the class

Model building (fuel cell car)

Who Killed the Electric Car (Sony Pictures, 2006)

Horizon: Is Nuclear Power Safe? (BBC , 2011)

Various news and data websites