Linking Science and Social Issues


What are the capacious civic questions or problems addressed in the course?

A central pedagogical objective of Energy and the Environment is to provide non-science majors with the necessary scientific and quantitative foundation to actively follow current scientific topics and their social impact. To this end, the Energy and Environment course uses contemporary environmental issues as a framework for introducing foundational principles of chemistry such as atomic and molecular structure, chemical reactivity, thermodynamics, etc.


What basic science is covered in the course and how is it linked to public policy questions?

Environmental ThemeScientific PrinciplesPolicy IssuesLab Experiment
Air pollutionGases, pressure, atmosphere, concentrationsEPA Clean Air Act, health effects of pollution, risk assessmentRisk Assessment
Gases in a Breath
The Ozone LayerAtomic structure, chemical bonding, UV radiation, CFCs and ozone depletionScientific debates, role of the Du Pont Corporation, Montreal ProtocolProperties of Light and Photochemistry
Global WarmingMolecular
geometry, IR radiation
debates on global warming, global policies on CO2 emissionsMolecular Models and Vibrations
Global Warming Paper
Climate ModelingFactors affecting climate, constructing climate modelsInterpreting climate models, using models for policy decisionsComputer Climate Modeling
Drinking Water QualityProperties of water, ions EPA Clean Water Act, industrial pollutants, Local Case Studies Water Quality Project
Acid RainAcids and bases, pH measurements,
lake acidification
EPA Clean Air Act, methods of lake remediationWater Quality Project 
Fossil Fuels Energy of chemical
reactions, combustion, sources of fossil fuels
U.S. & world use of fossil fuels, current & future resources, energy economicsNo Lab
Alternative Energy Solar energy, wind energy, hydroelectric, hydrogen cells1970s energy crisis, political influences on energy research No Lab


What strategies does the course use to both advance science education and foster civic engagement?

The structure and objectives of the course can best be illustrated by discussing three specific examples in which scientific principles are linked to public policy issues:

Issue 1: The Ozone Layer

The non-science students in the class are usually aware of ozone depletion and its potential risks but have little understanding of its scientific foundations. This section begins with the stunning graphical images of the ozone hole as recorded by the TOMS satellite, then proceeds to compare the chemical bonding of atoms in oxygen and ozone. Since ozone reacts with UV light in the stratosphere, it is necessary to review the properties of electromagnetic radiation. We then instruct students about the specific mechanism of ozone depletion by chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) as proposed by Sherwood Rowland and Mario Molina. However, this mechanism was not immediately accepted by the scientific community and was vigorously attacked by scientists from Du Pont Corporation who manufactured CFCs. Using their newly-acquired knowledge, students discuss the evidence and show how economic and political factors can impact on science policy decisions. This section concludes with an overview of the Montreal Protocol and its extensions for reducing CFC emissions, which represents a successful global policy initiative based on scientific foundations.

Issue 2: Global Warming

Global warming remains one of the most complex environmental challenges. Discussion of this issue with the students is centered on three connected questions: (1) Is global warming currently occurring?; (2) If it is occurring, does it have an anthropogenic origin?; (3) If it is both occurring and man-made, what policy steps should be taken to alleviate future problems? This topic is used to assist students to think critically and quantitatively, since in many cases the scientific evidence provides only partial answers. We begin by introducing recent evidence from the Vostok ice core that traces the earth's climate over thousands of years and shows a correlation between temperature and carbon dioxide levels. Moving to more recent times, we review records of global temperature over the last 150 years together with accurate scientific measurements of carbon dioxide concentrations. The ability to critically assess scientific evidence is central to understanding global warming, so students are given a paper assignment in which they use actual experimental data as a foundation for arguing for or against an anthropogenic influence on global warming and whether or not there should be global policy intervention. These papers are then used as the foundation for an in-class debate in which students present their ideas and engage in a constructive critical discourse.

Issue 3: Water Quality

Our experience has shown that most non-science students have never engaged in the process of independent scientific investigation. Although most students took laboratory science in high school, their experiments were usually formulaic and focused on getting the "right answer." We have recently designed several inquiry-based laboratory projects to provide our students with a realistic experience of scientific investigation in the context of exploring various aspects of water quality. Students work collaboratively in groups of three on a specific project over five weeks, where the specific project is different for each group of students. 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. The culmination of the project is for students to create a poster and present their results and conclusions to their fellow students in the laboratory group. Students also participate in asking questions and providing numerical scores for poster presentations using criteria such as background research, experimental procedure, and whether the conclusions are supported by the scientific data. These experimental investigations occur alongside discussion of water quality and current EPA regulations in the course lectures. Further information about the water quality projects is given as an appendix.

We are currently expanding the integration of outside speakers and policy perspectives into the course. For example, we have initiated a collaboration with Professor Rae Zimmerman, Professor of Planning and Public Administration and Director of the Urban Planning Program at New York University. Professor Zimmerman has a B.S. in Chemistry, a Ph.D. in Planning, and extensive experience working with the EPA and New York City regulators on air and water quality issues. She is also a principal investigator for a recently awarded NSF grant to investigate the scientific foundations of modern urban infrastructure. We have also contacted Doreen Bader from the Educational Division of the New York Department of Environmental Protection with the goal of enhancing the connection of course topics to pressing issues in the local environment. Finally, the NYU Medical School contains the Nelson Institute for Environmental Medicine, one of the country's leading centers for studying environmental health, and we have invited members of the medical faculty to speak to our students. By drawing on these local resources, the Energy and Environment is able to integrate scientific, policy and health issues in treating a particular environmental topic. We do not currently have a required or optional service learning component in the course, but we are exploring this possibility with the Hudson River Project, which is eager to recruit students to assist with their work.