Energy and the Environment

Trace Jordan, Assistant Director for Foundations of Scientific Inquiry in the Morse Academic Plan, New York University, New York, NY.

Energy and the Environment is a course offering within the large-scale Foundations of Scientific Inquiry program at NYU. The course typically enrolls between 120 and 130 students in a large lecture class, with laboratory sections of 20 students. The course uses contemporary environmental issues, including global warming, the ozone layer, and water quality, as a framework for introducing foundational principles of chemistry, such as atomic and molecular structure, chemical reactivity, and thermodynamics. Lectures are organized according to a method developed by Eric Mazur, a professor of Physics at Harvard University, in which the scientific presentation in the lecture is divided into segments of 15 - 20 minutes, followed by the assignment of an in-class conceptual or quantitative 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. Labs provide students with an introduction to experimental methods in chemistry, such as preparing gases, measuring the heat of a chemical reaction, and acid-base titration.

Because environmental science is an inherently interdisciplinary pursuit, some laboratories address topics in physics, such as atomic bonding and molecular structure, the properties of light, and the construction of electrical circuits using solar cells. Two laboratory sessions are specifically devoted to exploring environmental policy issues, including an overview of environmental risk assessment and a unit on global warming. Students also work collaboratively in groups of three on a specific research project over a period of five weeks. Examples of projects include, "Can Hudson River Water be Made Safe to Drink?" and "What is the Effect of Acid Rain on Plant Growth?" During the project, students collect their own water samples, design experiments, plot their results using an Excel spreadsheet, and generate their own scientific conclusions, which they present to their peers for evaluation.

Course Learning Goals and Objectives

  • To acquire a knowledge of foundational concepts, processes and terminology in chemistry
  • To develop skills in problem solving and the use of quantitative reasoning
  • To understand the methods of scientific investigation and appreciate new advances in our understanding of environmental science
  • To understand the techniques used in environmental experiments and computer simulations
  • To address the complex economic, political and policy aspects of environmental issues

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