Scientific Basis of Environmental Issues

Megan Kelly
Arrupe College of Loyola University Chicago


This core, introductory environmental science course is the first in a two-course sequence. This course examines energy flow and materials cycling in and among major Earth systems, with an emphasis on global phenomena including climate change and the loss of biodiversity. This course also emphasizes scientific reasoning and data analysis.

Course Size:

Course Format:
Lecture only

Institution Type:
Two Year College

Course Context:

This core, introductory environmental science course is the first in a two-course sequence. It has no pre-requisites and is required for all students to earn their A.A. Some students go on to study environmental science or a related field at the baccalaureate level, but most do not. The course articulates with the core at Loyola University Chicago as well as with the Illinois Articulation Initiative, which demands that the content be 50% life science and 50% physical science.

Course Content:

Geoscience content bookends this course. After a brief introduction to the process of science, students learn about biogeochemical cycles. The middle of the course builds on that with a focus on ecological concepts, evolution, and biodiversity. The final weeks of the course examine the climate system and climate change. The skills students learn include making systematic observations, working with numerical information and units, applying simple environmental models to make predictions about environmental systems, and describing and interpreting scientific figures and tables.

Course Goals:

Discipline-related goals:
1. Identify the interactions of various Earth systems in various case studies.
2. Construct and explain a schematic of the movement of energy and matter through or in a given system.
3. Choose and defend conservation decisions based on an ecological understanding.
4. Explain how and why the global climate is changing.
5. Explain how we know that human activities are the cause of climate change.
Skills goals:
1. Use library tools to locate and cite scholarly, peer-reviewed sources.
2. Use peer-reviewed sources to advance your understanding of current events and news items.
3. Use units of measurement including common prefixes from nano to peta
4. Convert units of measurement
5. Use scientific notation and understanding place value and exponents to represent measurements from very small scales to very large scales.
6. Analyze measurements using significant digits
7. Analyze problems using dimensional analysis.
8. Use ratios, proportions, and percentages to represent observed phenomena.
9. Describe, interpret, and create visual representations of data collected by others.
Attitudinal goals:
1. Learn about new scientific topics on your own

Course Features:

This course proceeds in an active-learning format on nearly all occasions, allowing students to practice the skills goals in the service of the attitudinal and disciplinary goals. The course meets for 90 minutes twice a week, which allows enough time to manage class and small group activities along with discussion, reflection, and clarification.

Course Philosophy:

I love teaching laboratory courses because of the primacy of hands-on learning and interaction with and among students. An active-learning approach suits my teaching style because it brings hands-on activities and student interaction to the "lecture" classroom. I also find that students make more of their time in class when I ask them to do things other than listen to me. Incorporating discussion and reflection into activities allows me to see what students are learning as we go, and for students to consider how what we do in class connects to their lives and other coursework. The extended class period also helps make sure we can fit everything in.


I assess student learning formatively through frequent discussion, pair or small groupwork during class, and short homework assignments. I also use three exams per term, which frequently incorporate data analysis relevant to the content of the exam. Finally, students construct an infographic as the final project. Students choose a news article (or, in semesters when I have taught this in a learning community with Intro to Christian Theology, a paragraph of Laudato Si), and create an infographic to explain the science behind their chosen text, using figures from or based on the scientific literature.

References and Notes:

I have chosen not to use a text because the cost of standard textbooks is out of line with the benefit they produce for student learning, especially in the context of research such as the #RealCollege report, showing that 70% of 2-year college students are food insecure, housing insecure, or homeless (
The core resources for this course are various texts from VisionLearning (, OpenStax Concepts of Biology (, and Healing Earth (
In the other class I teach, I have incorporated many Integrate ( modules, and my success with and enjoyment of those materials has convinced me that it is possible and worthwhile to emphasize data analysis in introductory-level environmental coursework. I have also incorporated materials from the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science (, the Network of Conservation Educators and Practitioners (, HHMI Biointeractive (, and Project EDDIE (