North American Environments

Marguerite S.E. Forest,
Marine and Ecological Sciences, Florida Gulf Coast University


Natural environments of North America (north of Mexico and excluding Florida) and critical environmental issues in the region will be examined in terms of geology/geomorphology, climate/weather, and biogeography (ecosystems, plants, and animals), emphasizing natural variation and anthropogenic alterations over various time scales. Multiple sources of information including scientific data, maps and charts, and artistic impressions will be utilized. This course is inquiry based and emphasizes active learning strategies.

Course Size:

Course Format:
Lecture only

Institution Type:
University with graduate programs, primarily masters programs

Course Context:

This is a third-year course with no pre-requisites and does not serve as a prerequisite for other courses. Many of the students are taking the course to meet the Environmental Studies (BA) program requirement of at least one global regional environmental course.

Course Content:

North American Environments includes sections on geology, climate, geomorphology, weather, watersheds & ecosystems, plants, animals, prohibited activities & protected areas, and restorations, reintroductions, & rewilding. It emphasizes natural variations over various time scales as the context for anthropogenic alterations. Timelines with years in multiples of ten are used to track events in each section and to correlate across sections. Class activities are designed to help students fill Excel spreadsheet timelines for individual project locations.

Course Goals:

Students will be able to:
  • Identify North American geological features, climate regions, ecosystems, and common, rare, indicator, and keystone species
  • Develop an appreciation for the biodiversity and productivity of North America ecosystems and the value of both long-term and short-term natural processes such as climate change or fire in creating and maintaining these communities
  • Demonstrate an understanding of the interactions of multiple spatial and temporal scales and how to make transitions among them
  • Understand and use scientific terms relating to the natural environment and its preservation
  • Integrate different types of data (e.g. topographic maps, thematic maps, stratigraphic columns, photographs, diagrams and/or tables and figures) to explain the formation of the widely varying landscapes we see today
  • Understand many of the complex interactions of ecological systems and apply that information to various human impacts on natural environments
  • Understand the impacts humans have on ecological systems, then evaluate and implement strategies to minimize those impacts
  • Use an ecological perspective to evaluate economic, political, and social changes over time
  • Recognize challenges posed by ecological impacts and the ethical conflicts inherent in choosing solutions to complex social and environmental issues
  • Explain the need for a variety of preserved natural areas and their value for species, personal, and societal well-being
  • Investigate, assess, and apply ways of influencing the outcomes of environmental issues

Course Features:

The course includes the following features or key assignments, which feed into each other in a progressive, step-by-step manner:
  1. an individual Portfolio project, a 3-ring binder where students compile lecture and activity notes, required reading summaries, sample illustrations, and other research material, course topic by course topic, focused on a location of their choice;
  2. an individual Excel Timeline (template provided by instructor), with one worksheet for each topic; within each worksheet there are two to five timelines with columns for Dates, Names (of time periods), Event Descriptions, and Illustration URLs; students are required to make at least five entries per timeline, for a total of 135-150 entries over the semester; and
  3. a small Group Regional Project, for two or three students working on nearby locations, consisting of either (a) an oversize mural or poster, or (b) an interactive PowerPoint or website showing an illustrated multi-topic timeline of their region.

Students are asked to imagine they have been "commissioned" to produce these final products by a school, nature center, or museum in their location or region. The murals / posters or interactive PowerPoints / websites are public teaching tools at these locations.

The Excel Timelines are project management tools, intermediate steps in final product design, and last but not least, very explicit structures for helping students to learn about multiple temporal scales, which kinds of events occur at different scales, and which processes operate at different temporal scales.

The Portfolios are reference manuals that teachers, park rangers or naturalists, and museum docents would study when learning how to use the murals / posters or interactive PowerPoints / websites as public teaching tools.

Course Philosophy:

I chose to teach about rates and time in this way because I have become increasingly more convinced about the importance of and more concerned about the lack of a Deep Time perspective when dealing with environmental problems. Many discussions of these issues seem to lack the understanding that only the context of long-term natural variations can provide. I wanted to make sure to include these components when I developed this course on North American Environments.

My teaching style is narrative and descriptive, with extensive use of graphics and usually very little text (some detailed explanations are provided for students to review later). Extensive information about rates and time was embedded in this material and temporal sequences were followed. Students also are required to read three good quality narrative and descriptive non-fiction books that should assist with temporal sequences in various topics. However, they still seemed to have difficulty grasping key concepts like temporal scales, placing of key events, understanding rates at which very different processes occur, and accurately transferring temporal information from various source materials into their own work.

I decided that explicit use of timelines, with appropriate temporal scale for different topics, would provide the structure needed to begin to address these problems. Class activities are designed to help students begin to fill the timelines for their own project locations. Materials for these activities come from a wide variety of online sources, but printouts are created to enable collation across sources and to encourage group participation. Also, this class is usually taught on a three-hour, once a week schedule, often at night. So, getting the students to move around is really important, but outdoor activities are not usually an option.

Last but not least, in an unusual arrangement with a local ENGO, half of my job is regional environmental education outreach and coordination. I am keenly aware of how very much support is needed in schools, nature centers, and museums. So, my students are strongly encouraged to realize the potential real-world value of their semester-long projects.


The accuracy of event placement in timelines is checked, along with correct matches of Dates, Names (of time periods), Event Descriptions, and Illustrations. The significance and relevance to the chosen project location of the five events in each timeline is checked, as well as correlations across timelines when appropriate, for example from geology to paleoclimate.


Teaching Materials:

Excel Spreadsheet for Semester Timeline Assignment (Excel 2007 (.xlsx) 22kB Feb10 12)

References and Notes:

  • Across This Land: A Regional Geography of the United States and Canada by John C. Hudson (2002), Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore
  • Overview, Geology, and Climate
  • The Physical Geography of North America by Antony R. Orme, Ed. (2002), Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York
  • Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape by Barry Lopez, Editor, and Debra Gwartney, Managing Editor (2006), Trinity University Press, San Antonio
  • Extreme Weather: A Guide and Record Book by Christopher C. Burt (2004)
  • W.W. Norton, New York
  • Ecosystem Geography by Robert G. Bailey (1996), Springer, New York
  • Terrestrial Ecoregions of North America: A Conservation Assessment by Taylor H. Ricketts, et al. (1999), Island Press, Washington, D.C.
  • Freshwater Ecoregions of North America: A Conservation Assessment by Robin A. Abell et al. (2000), Island Press, Washington, D.C.
  • Late Cretaceous and Cenozoic History of North American Vegetation, North of Mexico by Alan Graham (1999) , Oxford University Press, New York
  • The Eternal Frontier: An Ecological History of North America and its Peoples by Tim Flannery (2001), Atlantic Monthly Press, NY
  • Paradise Found: Nature in America at the Time of Discovery by Steve Nicholls (2009), University of Chicago Press, Chicago
Protected Areas
  • National Parks: America's Best Idea, Directed by Ken Burns and Written and Co-produced by Dayton Duncan (2009), Public Broadcasting Service