Teach the Earth > Complex Systems > Courses > Environmental Analysis

Environmental Analysis

Deborah Gross,
Department of Chemistry, Carleton College


Humans have had a dramatic impact on the chemistry of the earth's environment. In this course, we study the chemistry of molecules in the air, water, and soil. Emphasis will be placed on understanding the chemistry in the natural (unpolluted) environment, and the changes which occur due to human activity and pollution. In addition, we will explore the methods which are used to measure pollutants in the environment and their applicability, as well as regulatory issues of relevance to the topics studied.

Course Size:
fewer than 15

Course Format:
Small-group seminar

Institution Type:
Private four-year institution, primarily undergraduate

Course Context:

This is a 300-level chemistry course which also satisfies a requirement in the Environmental Studies major. The majority of the students who take it are chemistry majors. As the prerequisite is any 2000-level chemistry course, which can be fulfilled by taking only two chemistry courses, there are many qualified students. The course has an optional lab.

Course Content:

Environmental Analysis focuses on the detailed understanding of quantitative measurements made by researchers in environmental systems. The primary literature is the textbook for the course, with the specific papers we choose to read changing in each offering, so we focus our discussions on the scientific context of the paper, the instrumentation and measurement methods used, and the regulations and environmental policies that are relevant to the system under study. The course is 100% discussion.

Course Goals:

  1. Students should be able to evaluate the appropriateness of methods used to quantitatively measure environmental contaminants.
  2. Students should be able to read the scientific literature and understand the content of a paper and track backwards into the references or other relevant literature to understand the context and the details.
  3. Students should be aware of the complex relationships between environmental regulations, measurement methods, and environmental outcomes.
  4. Students should be able to propose a quantitative study of an interesting environmental system.

Course Features:

The course is discussion-based, with students assigned to research and lead discussion on specific topic areas related to each paper discussed (scientific context, measurement methods, and regulations). The final project is for students to write a grant proposal, in the EPA-STAR format, for a measurement campaign of their choice, and to present their project to the class. If students are taking the optional laboratory, their lab project (5 - 6 weeks) involves carrying out a proof-of-concept experiment for their grant proposal.

Course Philosophy:

I was trying to find a way to help students discuss specific papers about which they might know very little. By breaking up the topic, they have more manageable chunks of knowledge to learn. The independence that the students are given, and the discussion-based classes, are particularly appealing to upper-level undergraduates at Carleton College.


The three main ways that I can assess the degree to which students have achieved the course goals are:
  1. Observations of the discussions they lead.
  2. A take-home midterm exam in which they are responsible for answering questions about all aspects of a paper they haven't seen before.
  3. The final grant proposal, in which they need to cover each area we have discussed in class in the context of their own idea.


Environmental Analysis Syllabus (Acrobat (PDF) 38kB Mar4 10)

Teaching Materials:

References and Notes:

We base the course entirely on the primary literature.

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