Science and Sustainability: A Freshman Seminar Course

Steven Neshyba, University of Puget Sound

Summary

The activity is the design and teaching of a university-level, first semester freshman seminar course, Science and Sustainability. The "big idea" is that students can and should be involved in the evolution of sustainability as an established, science-based social construction. The course is designed to define ideas relating science and sustainability and to promote conversation among students and faculty. The outcome, it is hoped, is that students will emerge from the course with a clearer vision of that evolution, in both personal and public settings.

It is hoped that educators could adapt the course proposal that follows for their own purpose.

Learning Goals

The "big idea" is that students can and should be involved in the evolution of sustainability as an established, science-based social construction. The course is designed to define ideas relating science and sustainability and to promote conversation among students and faculty. The outcome, it is hoped, is that students will emerge from the course with a clearer vision of that evolution, in both personal and public settings.

Context for Use

Significant questions exist as to the role of sustainability in a university setting. Should sustainability be taught in the context of science? If so, should it be taught in parallel with science teaching, or as a separate entity? What are the prospects of sustainability emerging as a new and viable social construct, and what shape will it take?

The proposed course is based on the premise that students can and should be involved in the evolution of sustainability as an established, science-based social construction. The course will be team-taught in a seminar format with a colleague in the Comparative Sociology Department, scheduled for Spring 2010 at the University of Puget Sound. The backbone of the course is made of two books: Berger and Luckmann's The Social Construction of Reality (1966), and Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma (2006). The Social Construction of Reality allows us to consider sustainability through the lens of theories of knowledge. We use that lens to consider the possible future of sustainability as an institution. The Omnivore's Dilemma allows us to look at sustainability from the point of view of a single person, with emphasis on the chemistry of food.

Description and Teaching Materials

Students will discuss these reading: Berger and Luckmann's The Social Construction of Reality (1966), and Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma (2006), in a seminar format, write papers, take exams, carry out a chemistry experiment using mass spectroscopy, and undertake a research project into current pedagogical approaches to science and sustainability.

Large portions of this course would work in a discipline other than chemistry - specifically, the portions that deal with the social science of emerging institutions. There are significant chemistry-specific parts that would need to be replaced, for example the laboratory on gas chromatography/mass spectrometry.

The Learning Activities

A course proposal at the University of Puget Sound consists of a "Bulletin Course Description", outline, and other materials, described next.

Bulletin Course Description
Science and Sustainability is a scholarly inquiry into the scientific ideas that underlie the contemporary sustainability movement. The course explores sociological theories of knowledge, and how those theories play out in the development of emerging scientific disciplines. Students design and carry out research into how science and sustainability are taught in real classrooms and laboratories. An important goal of the course is to develop a personal sense of how sustainability fits in to the goals of contemporary science education, and into one's own goals as a potential creator and participant in a "sustainable" society.

Students will discuss readings with other students, write papers, take exams, and present the results of research in a public setting.

The course satisfies the core requirement in Scholarly and Creative Inquiry.

Required texts
The Social Construction of Reality, Berger and Luckmann (1966)
The Omnivore's Dilemma, Pollan (2006)
Learning Objectives The goals of this course are to help you to:
  1. Understand how systems of scientific knowledge come into being.
  2. Be familiar with the history, goals, and structure of the sustainability movement.
  3. Understand how science and sustainability are conceptually related.
  4. Develop a vision of how your educational goals fit into a "sustainable" future.
Course Outline
The course is organized as follows:
I. Introduction to theories of knowledge.
Reading:
  • The Omnivore's Dilemma, chapters 1-3 (Pollan, 2006)
  • The Social Construction of Reality, chapter I (Berger and Luckmann, 1966)
  • Our Common Future (Brundtland, 1987)
Activity:
  • Using a gas chromatograph mass spectrometer
II. Institutionalization of scientific disciplines.
Reading:
  • The Omnivore's Dilemma, chapters 4-7 (Pollan, 2006)
  • The Social Construction of Reality, chapters II-III
  • The Enzyme Theory and the Origin of Biochemistry (Kohler, 1973)
  • The Sustainability Revolution (Edwards, 2005)
Activity:
  • Judging at a grade school science fair
III. Teaching science and sustainability.
Reading:
  • The Omnivore's Dilemma, chapters 8-9 (Pollan, 2006)
  • Scientific Teaching (Handelsman et al, 2007)
  • Improving Science Education for Sustainable Development (van Eijck and Roth, 2007)
Activity:
  • Analysis of a science class
IV. Presentation of research projects.

Grading and Evaluation Criteria
  1. Attendance and participation (10% of grade) If you miss more than two classes, a penalty may be assessed. After each class meeting I will update a portfolio on each student; at individual conferences mid-semester, we discuss your portfolio, and discuss strategies for improvement if necessary.
  2. Reading assessments (30% of grade) At the beginning of most class meetings, you will be asked to write a short essay or answer a few questions about the reading assignment.
  3. Exams (30% of grade)This seminar is not a science course. However, it is not possible to have a deep understanding of the topic without learning a considerable number of "facts" - e.g., the content of Dalton's atomic theory, the seven common themes of sustainability movements, or the "three Es". Your mastery of this material will assessed by written exams.
  4. Formal papers and research presentation (30% of grade) At the end of each module, you will be asked to shape your ideas into a persuasive argument. These papers are formal - grammar, punctuation, structure, and content are important.

Specific Activity: the GCMS Lab

I have taught a laboratory involving GCMS was taught in another freshman seminar course, and adapted it to the present course. What follows are instructor notes and a sample laboratory handout.
Learning Goals & Assessments

Students will:
1. Understand fundamentals of atomic isotopes.
a. Define "isotope"
b. Explain the difference between stable and unstable isotopes.
c. State the number of protons and neutrons implied by given formulas (e.g., 13C or 14N).
d. Use given isotopic ratios fstd and fobsto calculate parts-per-thousand deviations.
e. State the range of δ13C expected for C3- and C4-metabolism plants.
2. Be familiar with the molecular structure of fatty acids and their esters.
a. Given chemical formulas or other shortened notations (e.g., FAME 18:2), make corresponding line drawings, with proper positioning of double bonds.
b. Calculate the molecular mass of given fatty acids and esters.
3. Develop expertise in obtaining and interpreting GCMS data of fatty acid esters.
a. Sketch the architecture of a GCMS, labeling relevant components.
b. Predict the relative timing of elution for given compounds.
c. Identify features in MS spectra due to 13C.
d. State possible formulas of fragments in MS spectra.
e. Define terms appearing in the laboratory handout.
f. Infer δ13C values from given spectra of fatty acid esters.
Several lecture sessions precede the lab, the pace depending on the chemistry background students have. We work through the architecture of a GSMS instrument, the writing of chemical formulas, the meaning of isotopes and atomic/molecular mass, isotopic ratios, δ13C, the structure of fatty acids and their methyl derivatives. A particularly challenging exercise is the derivation of Eq. 3, which requires some statistical ideas; students work though this in a guided inquiry context, developing equations for two- and three-carbon chains, and then generalizing those results.

A lecture session also follows the lab. We work through the mechanics of the lab itself, the integrity and meaning of the results, and larger issues of how the lab relates to claims made by Pollan.

GCMS Lab (Microsoft Word 39kB Nov1 11)

Teaching Notes and Tips

GCMS Lab - Instructor Notes

Isotope chemistry as a nutrition analysis strategy is alluded to in Pollan's book Omnivore's Dilemma. From a chemist's point of view, his treatment is frustratingly terse: what exactly is the isotope analysis he refers to, and how does it work? Should we be worried about the isotopic composition of corn being incorporated into our bodies? Rather than leave those ideas as abstractions, the broad idea behind this lab is to allow students to get their hands into a real-life example of such a strategy, and to develop vocabulary needed to discuss Pollan's claims with some chemical sophistication.

Assessment

Grading criteria, etc., are given in the course proposal. In addition, students will complete a sustainability literacy survey at the beginning and end of the course.

References and Resources

A chemistry laboratory equipped with a gas chromatograph/mass spectrometer.

Evergreen State College