Science and Sustainability: A Freshman Seminar

Steven Neshyba
Chemistry Department, University of Puget Sound


Science and Sustainability is a seminar course on the scientific ideas that underlie the sustainability movement. The course is fundamental in the sense that philosophical underpinnings of science and sustainability are examined in depth. It is also practical in the sense that analytical methods for describing sustainability-related topics are developed, e.g., the mathematics of exponential growth and power laws, the geology of aquifers, chemical thermodynamics, and resilience thinking.

Course Size:

Institution Type:
Private four-year institution, primarily undergraduate

Course Context:

The course is a freshman seminar, part of the university's core first-year curriculum. There are no prerequisites, but students are assumed to have good algebra skills and a familiarity with basic ideas of chemistry. All courses in this core category are expected to provide focused exposure to a particular topic; students are expected to frame questions, support claims, etc., in discussion and in written formats.

Course Content:

The course begins with an overview of challenges of sustainability faced by contemporary societies. Next we engage classical writings in the philosophy of science, considering questions such as how values play a role in scientific inquiry, how changes in science occur as social revolutions, and how theory-ladenness influences scientific thinking. We then examine philosophical and historical accounts leading to the modern sustainability movement, beginning with accounts of water conflicts in the industrial revolution, and transcendentalist writings. Next we consider conventional scientific approaches to issues related to sustainability, including the construction of mathematical models for predicting Earth's temperature in presence of greenhouse gases, and applications of the 1st and 2nd Laws for predicting CO2 emissions and efficiencies of various fuels. We also consider emerging scientific approaches to sustainability, e.g., resilience thinking, social networking, and biomimicry. We move on to consider more fundamental, institutional-level ideas, e.g., a critique of disciplinary education, and strategies for a coping with the failure of sustainability. The course concludes with a survey of the multiple roles scientists actually play in modern scientific societies (e.g., as advocates, technologists, and educators), and ways in which scientists have begun to evaluate criteria for prioritizing scientific research for sustainability-related goals.

Course Goals:

Course goals (Acrobat (PDF) 25kB Jun8 11)

Course Features:

The course consists mostly of instructor-moderated student discussion; the idea is that students will learn by conversing with each other, even as they are learning how to converse with each other. I tell them this is no artifice, that they will be faced with circumstances in their professional lives in which they will have to articulate their views with cogency (and evidence) in order to achieve their objectives. Short "pocket lectures" are also occasionally delivered to introduce a technical topic (e.g. the mathematics of exponential functions), or ways of visualizing an abstraction (e.g. the distinction between logical positivism and logical empiricism). These lectures are usually followed up with an in-class worksheet in which students have the opportunity to learn the ideas by applying them. Guest lectures by persons deeply committed to particular objectives (e.g., conservancies in Namibia) are also scheduled, as available. Marshaled wisely, these guest presentations can be highly effective in legitimizing and grounding (in students' minds) unfamiliar points of view. A final project is a 5-8 page report in which students analyze the scientific merits of claims made in a text assigned for the course, by chasing down the claims in the peer-reviewed scientific literature. In doing so, students learn the value of critical analysis grounded in science: too often, they discover that an erstwhile trusted author has committed significant errors of omission, context, or analysis.

Course Philosophy:

I have put this content into "course features".


Course assessments (Acrobat (PDF) 25kB Jun8 11)
Unit 1 - Scope of the problem (Acrobat (PDF) 76kB Jun8 11)
Unit 2 - Philosophies of science (Acrobat (PDF) 63kB Jun8 11)
Unit 3 - Philosophies of sustainability (Acrobat (PDF) 57kB Jun8 11)
Unit 4 - Conventional scientific approaches (Acrobat (PDF) 63kB Jun8 11)
Unit 5 - Emergent approaches (Acrobat (PDF) 83kB Jun8 11)
Unit 6 - Where to go from here (Acrobat (PDF) 74kB Jun8 11)


Syllabus (Acrobat (PDF) 64kB Jun8 11)

References and Notes:

References (Acrobat (PDF) 44kB Jun8 11)