Sustainability & Human Health: A Learning Community

Wagner College taught by Donald Stearns and Kim Worthy


Designed for non-science majors, this learning community considers the impact of humans on the environment, with emphasis on the major environmental issues facing the health and survival of the present generation, including pollution, global warming, ozone depletion, the biodiversity crisis, acid deposition, and the desertification of once fertile lands. It is organized around two lecture courses, one dealing with biology, the other with literature, that focus on immediate environmental problems that, if not addressed, will threaten human survival.

The Environmental Biology course takes as its starting point the sustainability of human life in the present environmental context. Lectures and labs cover basic biology and chemistry that support human life (carbohydrates, lipids, proteins, nucleic acids, water, air, and salts), the principles of Darwinian evolution, and the natural resources on which humans rely (plants, animals, soil, minerals, and fossil fuels). Ecological concepts are presented that reveal how nature functions as a vast interconnected web and laboratories convey scientific method and experimental design through the testing of water and air for pollutants, toxins, bacteria, and acids. The course also considers how existing technologies exacerbate stress on the ecosystem, including humans, and how new and alternative technologies can contribute to a higher, and more sustainable, quality of life for all species.

The Literature and the Environment course focuses on essays, poetry, and works of fiction, drama, and film that deal with the natural environment. The course brings the perspective of literary artists to the discussion of the cultural and social role that "nature" plays in human existence.

These two lecture courses are combined with a third element, a Reflective Tutorial. This is an interactive, discussion-based, and writing intensive course that challenges students to find connections between their learning in the other courses and their role as active citizens. Students participate in field trips to Dover Township, New Jersey, where the pollution in Toms River may be linked to a childhood cancer cluster, and to Washington, DC to meet and lobby a member of congress, as well as in a service learning experience.

What Basic Science is Covered?

In this learning community, the conceptual objectives of the science course (Environmental Biology) are as follows:

- Understanding the resources required for human survival

- Understanding the concept of energy and its relation to human survival

- Understanding Darwinian evolution and its relation to survival of the human species

- Understanding the concepts of exponential population growth and sustainability

- Understanding overpopulation, over-consumption, and the biosphere's carrying capacity

- Understanding the fallacy of praying to the god of technology

- Understanding the connections among organisms within a community

- Understanding the connections between humans and natural ecosystems

- Understanding the present state of resource depletion

- Understanding the present state of pollution and human health

- Understanding the scientific process through laboratory exercises

- Understanding the role of science in addressing large, complex, contested, and unresolved public issues

- Understanding that living sustainably is the only viable option for continued human survival

- Understanding how to approach sustainability realistically

While above are cited the conceptual objectives of Environmental Biology, the basic science includes the following topics in lectures and labs:

Basic science topics covered in lecture:

- Atoms, molecules, and chemical bonds

- Energy and energy transformations necessary to construct molecules

- Biological molecules required for human survival (carbohydrates, lipids, proteins, and nucleic acids)

- Nonbiological molecules required for human survival (water, salts)

- Darwinian evolution through natural selection

- Exponential population growth

- Carrying capacity of an environment

- Overpopulation, overconsumption, and the biosphere's carrying capacity

- Biosphere primary production as a finite concept

- Natural services provided by natural ecosystems

- Renewable resources (fisheries, forests, soil, potable water)

- Nonrenewable resources (fossil fuels, minerals)

- Pollution defined

- Water pollution and human health

- Air pollution and human health (smog, acid deposition, global climate change, stratospheric ozone depletion, indoor air pollution)

- Land pollution (synthetic chemical pollutants, solid waste disposal, hazardous waste disposal)

- Worldwide food production for humans

- The scientific method and its failure to determine causation in real, multivariate situations

- Sustainability

- Economic indicators versus quality of life/sustainability indicators

- The use of appropriate technologies and environmental public policies to approach sustainability (real examples)

Basic science topics covered in labs:

- Experimental design and the scientific method

- Water quality testing using the coliform test for the presence of coliform bacteria in water samples

- Introduction to bacteria and bacterial cultures

- Water quality testing using Winkler titration for determination of dissolved oxygen in water samples

- Wastewater treatment

- Functional anatomy of the human respiratory system

- Smoking and its effects on human health and sexual potency

- Effects of acid rain (sulfuric acid) on various materials

- Effects of air pollutants (hydrogen sulfide, sulfur dioxide) on various materials

- Temperature inversion

- Toxicity testing using LD50

- Alternative power sources and renewable energy

Learning Goals

The course addresses the following learning goals of Wagner College:

- critical thinking skills that enable students to analyze information and develop approaches that are new to them and lead to a better understanding of their world

- competency in learning by doing, where ideas and field-based experiences are related, reflected in writing and discussion, and applied in ways that improve student's world

- an appreciation of different modes of inquiry that aid in the continuing search for knowledge, understanding, and truth

- competence in the skills of listening, speaking, and writing, to promote effective

- communication and self-expression