The Course

A major priority in the design of this course is the engagement of students as scientists and citizens. This is accomplished through the variety of techniques described below.

Energy and the Environment Syllabus (Acrobat (PDF) 291kB Jul8 08)

Course Description

This course explores the scientific foundations of current environmental issues and their challenges for public policy. The syllabus is split into three major sections: atmosphere, water and energy. The first section begins by investigating the composition of the atmosphere and the chemical processes that cause air pollution, ozone depletion, and global warming. Moving to the study of water, the course explores the properties of this unique solvent, the effect of various aqueous pollutants, and the origin of acid rain. The course concludes with a discussion of the energetics of chemical reactions, our continuing reliance on fossil fuels, and the potential of alternative energy sources. The laboratory experiments are closely integrated with the lecture topics and provide handson explorations of central course themes, including a multi-week project to investigate one aspect of water quality in detail. Throughout the course we also examine how scientific studies of the environment are intimately connected with political, economic and policy concerns.

Teaching and Learning Strategies

Having between 120 to 130 students in a lecture raises some challenges for promoting active learning. By building upon the pioneering work of others, however, I have been able to design activities that have proven to be effective at stimulating student engagement in the class.

Establishing a dialogue with the students:
Most students who come to my class are expecting it to be an exercise in transmitting factual information, where I speak and they write notes. From many conversations with students, I have learned that this type of passive learning was what turned many of them away from science in high school. From the very first class, therefore, I establish a dialogue with the students to encourage two-way communication. Initially, this takes the form of regularly asking questions of the students, concerning both scientific information and public policy issues. In my experience, students are often uncomfortable with this approach at first, and it takes two or three lectures before many of them feel comfortable speaking in such a large class. However, once the dialogue is established, it creates an environment where I regularly solicit many responses to my questions and where students are not abashed to ask questions of their own. This dialogue is the foundation for many of the other teaching and learning activities in the class.

In-Class Science Problem Solving:
Eric Mazur, a Professor of Physics at Harvard University, has promoted a method of in-class problem solving that I have adapted and found to be very effective. We are all familiar with the scenario where we give a lecture exposition on a scientific topic, only to find that students have not grasped either the basic point or how to apply it. In the Mazur method, the scientific presentation in the lecture is divided into segments of 15 - 20 minutes, which are immediately followed by asking students to work on a conceptual or simple numerical problem. This strategy stimulates students to actively examine whether they can understand the latest material and provides immediate feedback for the instructor, who can then decide whether to review the topic further or move on to the next subject.

I have tried two variants of the in-class problem solving approach. The first is using the "think-pair-share" method, where students first try the problem on their own and then discuss the result with their neighbor in the class. The purpose of this discussion is for each student to explain the solution to his or her learning partner, an example of on-the-spot peer instruction in the classroom. During this process I walk around the lecture room, listening to students talk and giving hints if necessary. I then call upon the students in the class to volunteer a solution to the problem, which I then write on the board.

Although this method engages the students in a lively discussion, I find that there are some limitations. First, it is possible for students with weaker preparation to make a half-hearted effort at the problem since they know they will get the answer explained to them by another student. Second, it is often difficult to assess how many students have had success with the problem, since the vocal students who volunteer an answer are often the ones who have the least difficulty. Therefore, around every two weeks I will employ a second method that is more formal. In this approach, I give a problem that students work on individually and that I collect immediately after completion. I then review all 120 solutions after class and can assess the proportion of students in the class who have successfully grasped the topic. If there are a substantial number of students who had difficulty, I will return to an explanation of this topic at the beginning of the next lecture.

In-Class Writing Assignments on Science Policy:

Another in-class exercise that I employ is for students to write a short assessment of a particular environmental policy issue. As discussed in Section A, the E&E course is organized around certain environmental themes such as ozone depletion, global warming, acid rain, alternative energy sources, etc. Each of these themes naturally lends itself to one or more of these policy writing assignments. Some of the assignments are based on a question that I pose after covering the scientific and regulatory foundations of a particular topic, for example:

  • How do we decide the acceptable level of risk when regulating the levels of harmful pollutants in the air we breathe or the water we drink?
  • Do you believe that the current scientific evidence for global warming is sufficient to make serious economic concessions to avert serious environmental problems in the future? Explain why or why not.
  • Renewable energy sources continue to play only a very small role in the energy economy of the United States. Select one type of renewable energy and describe what changes would you make – e.g., energy infrastructure, taxation system, research grants, etc. - to promote its use. Do you think that such active intervention is justifiable?

It is obvious that such complex questions cannot be properly addressed in such a short assignment, but for many students this provides their first opportunity to think carefully about a scientific policy issue. Students can then share their policy statements with their neighbors and, after this discussion, I call upon volunteers to present their ideas to the class. I specifically aim to solicit a diversity of opinions, which often leads to a lively debate in the class. I have observed that students who are shy about answering the scientific problems will often speak up about policy issues during this discussion.

Another type of in-class writing assignment is based upon environmental news articles from the New York Times. This method is particularly effective if, as often happens, there is a breaking story of national or global importance that directly connects to the subject we are covering in the class. Due to time constraints, I will use either a short article or an excerpt from a longer article, which I distribute to students in the class. I then ask a focus question - similar to the examples shown above - that students must answer in light of reading the article. After writing a response and sharing their thoughts with their neighbor, I again ask for volunteers to present to the class.

I will often collect both types of policy writing assignments from students at the end of the class. This enables me to use the assignments to assess the range of perspectives in the class and, in some cases, to use specific ideas as a springboard for other topics.

Group Research Projects and Presentations

One component of this course that has proven to be successful is the assignment of group research projects and presentations. This has taken two
forms over the years: (1) a multi-week experimental project in the laboratory to investigate one aspect of water quality; or (2) a project using print and web sources to investigate a renewable energy source. Since the water quality experiments have been discussed earlier in Part C, this section will focus on the renewable energy projects. The goals of this project were the following:

  • To foster collaboration among the three students working in a group.
  • To provide an opportunity for students to investigate an environmental topic in more depth and to develop the ability to assess the usefulness
    and reliability of various sources.
  • To encourage students to evaluate the potential of this energy source for large scale, sustainable energy production and to make an argument for or against this capability.
  • To develop students' skills in giving oral presentations to their peers.

A copy of the guidelines provided to students is provided in an Appendix at the end of this section. In summary, students randomly selected a renewable energy source (using numbered ping pong balls) and investigated three major questions:

  1. What are the scientific principles underlying energy production by this source?
  2. Describe two sites using this source for energy production, one in the United States and one abroad.
  3. Evaluate the potential of this source for large-scale energy production in the U.S.

One of the later laboratory sessions in the course was devoted to students giving presentations on their projects, with many groups making sophisticated slides using PowerPoint. After the presentation, students have the following weekend to prepare a more complete report on the topic, which is then submitted to the professor and the laboratory instructor for evaluation. As a summary conclusion to the projects, part of the final lecture was devoted to a class discussion of which renewable energy source, out of the seven different ones investigated, had the best potential for large-scale production.

In general, we have found that the energy projects are valuable for promoting student engagement in the E&E course. The design of the projects explicitly encourages students to consider both scientific and policy factors in making an assessment about the viability of the renewable source for large-scale energy production. Most students become very devoted to their group projects in a way that goes beyond their commitment to other aspects of the course, and the quality of their presentations and reports is generally very high. When students were asked on the student evaluation form about whether the energy project had been "a valuable learning experience," 69 % of then responded in the affirmative.

Laboratory Experiences

From the inception of the FSI program, there was a commitment by the NYU faculty and administration that all non-majors in the Natural Science courses should acquire a meaningful experience in experimental laboratory investigation. The laboratory is therefore one of the central components of the E&E course and we have committed much of our effort to making this a rewarding and educational experience for the students.

As discussed in Part A, the laboratory session is held once a week for 1 hour 40 minutes. This duration is quite short by conventional standards, but was a necessary compromise given the very large number of students in the FSI program. This schedule means that we have had to be creative in designing experiments that can be accomplished by students within the allotted timeframe. Each laboratory section contains 21 students, working in
groups of three. We have also experimented with sections of 22 students working in pairs in order to maximize the hands-on experience, but this arrangement is more difficult within our available laboratory space. The laboratory sessions are taught by trained graduate students, who are recruited from both the Chemistry and the Biology Departments at NYU. The development of an effective "teaching team," which partners the professor with the laboratory instructors in a unified educational mission, is discussed further in Section D.

We have a very expansive view regarding the activities that occur during the "laboratory" sessions in the E&E course. We certainly provide the non-majors students with an introduction to experimental methods in chemistry, such as preparing gases, measuring the heat of a chemical reaction, and acid-base titration. However, environmental science is an inherently interdisciplinary pursuit, so we also provide students with some
laboratories that may be considered as physics, such as the properties of light and the construction of electrical circuits using solar cells. Finally, we use two laboratory sessions for exploring environmental policy issues - an opening overview of risk assessment and, later in the course, a discussion of global warming.

The laboratory component of the E&E course has been taught in two different configurations. The first configuration is where we offer weekly experiments or discussions, which are closely connected to the topics being discussed in lecture and the relevant readings in Chemistry in Context. This arrangement allows students to complete a different project each week and provides them with a diversity of laboratory experiences. Even though we were satisfied with these experiments, I became concerned that students were not engaged in inquiry-driven activities during the laboratory sessions. I therefore devised and taught an alternative configuration for the laboratories, one in which the first half followed the weekly experiment format but the second half was devoted to a multi-week, inquiry-based project on one aspect of water quality. This change certainly provided students with a richer experience in scientific investigation and, at the conclusion of the project, with the presentation of their results. We did find, however, that the water projects were extremely intensive in terms of faculty time, laboratory instructor responsibilities, and preparation by the laboratory staff.