GEOL B255 Problem Solving in the Environmental Sciences

Catherine Riihimaki

Drew University
Private four-year institution, primarily undergraduate


This course is an opportunity for students to gain first-hand experience with developing effective approaches to solving complex environmental problems. We address fundamental quantitative concepts and then apply them to issues such as global warming, sudden catastrophes, and the effects of steady flow of wind and water on Earth's surface. In the process, we explore mathematical patterns that are common to all of the natural sciences. More advanced topics include primary data collection, non-linear curve-fitting, experimental design, and literature reviews.

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Course Context:

This is an introductory course with no pre-requisites, although comfort with algebra and pre-calculus are strongly recommended. Typically, 50% of the students take the course because they have strong quantitative skills that they would like to apply to environmental science, and 50% of the students take the course to fulfill a college quantitative distribution requirement.

Course Goals:

Students should be comfortable with order-of-magnitude calculations and dimensional analysis.
Students should be able to recognize assumptions used in mathematical models, and to specify types of error associated with assumptions.
Students should be able to use Excel and Kaleidagraph to make plots, complete calculations, and model data.
Students should be able to apply basic mass-balance and energy-balance equations to systems.
Students should be able to synthesize quantitative literature on an environmental topic of their choosing.

How course activities and course structure help students achieve these goals:

The class has weekly activities (e.g., paper discussions or data collection) and weekly problem sets based on those activities. The problem sets are quantitative and often involve using Excel or Kaleidagraph. There are two mid-terms consisting of short-answer questions and some calculations. The final project requires the students to synthesize peer-reviewed literature on a topic related to the course.

Skills Goals

quantitative abilities
accessing and critically reading environmental science literature

How course activities and course structure help students achieve these goals:

Weekly problem sets help the students work on their quantitative skills. Reading and evaluating the literature is achieved through periodically discussing a paper as a class, usually with an associated problem set, and through a final research paper.

Attitudinal Goals

building students' quantitative confidence
attracting quantitative students to the Geology major

How course activities and course structure help students achieve these goals:

I spend lots of one-on-one time with students who need confidence building. The course has been advertised through word-of-mouth to math majors, several of whom have decided to double-major in math and geology.


Weekly problem sets 30%
Two mid-term exams 15% each
Final project 20%
Participation 20%


Syllabus (Microsoft Word 51kB May5 08)