Environmental Science (introductory)

Anita Ho
Flathead Valley Community College


This course provides an overview of environmental science, including science and scientific methods, environmental systems and ecology, natural resources (biodiversity, land and soil, air and water), and their management, including the impact of humans on natural systems. Upon completion of this course a student should have a strong foundation to make sound environmental decisions.

Course Size:
less than 15

Course Format:
Students enroll in one course that includes both lecture and lab. The lecture and the lab are both taught by the professor.

Institution Type:
Two Year College

Course Context:

This is an introductory course with no prerequisites, and does not serve as a prerequisite for other courses. Students generally enroll in this course to fulfill a general education requirement in natural science. Most students eventually transfer to a four-year institution; most of these students are looking to major in non-science fields.

Course Content:

The first half of this course covers environmental systems and ecology, then moves into resource-related topics such as soil and agriculture, energy, air and climate change, water, water pollution and waste management. In the accompanying lab, students delve into some case studies, dabble in population ecology and soils testing, and in the latter part of the semester, tour our local electric cooperative, municipal water and sewage treatment facilities and a composting business (run by an alum of the class!). Students periodically present on topics in class to each other, discuss current events and write reactions to the field trips.

Course Goals:

Discipline-related goals: After this course, students should be able to
- Articulate and explain the science (the basic principles of ecology, biology, geology, chemistry and physics) behind environmental issues such as biodiversity loss, ecological debt, pollution, climate change, etc.;
- Apply scientific concepts and methods of inquiry;
- Recognize that many natural resources are finite, and being depleted; similarly, realize that environmental systems are intimately intertwined, and that individual actions have consequences;
- Know where to find reliable and representative sources of information about the environment;
- Make sound environmental decisions, or take personal actions, that protect biodiversity, natural resources and health.

Skills goals: After his course, I hope that student will be able to
- Be critical of information about environmental issues;
- Distinguish between fact, fiction and opinion;
- Communicate clearly and concisely, and use scientific terms and concepts correctly, in both written and oral form.

Attitudinal goals: After his course, I hope that students will
- Continued to think critically and be skeptical;
- Appreciate the plentiful natural resources we have in Montana;
- Continue to develop a sense of stewardship of the environment (and especially the local environment);
- Share what they have learned with their friends and family (and convince other students to take the class the next time it's offered).

Course Features:

Over the course of the semester, students are required to research topics and present information beyond what is in the textbook to the class on topics such as endangered species, soil degradation, food and agriculture issues and/or alternative energy sources. Most of these topics require a case study from somewhere around the world. These presentations usually happen three times during a semester. Students are also required to write reaction papers on the tours we take of our local utilities during the final few afternoon lab periods of the semester.

Since the class is usually small, we often have spontaneous and informal discussions at the beginning (or end) of class most class meetings. Otherwise, most of our class time consists of traditional lecture, almost always over topics the students have been introduced to in the online homework (in Mastering) that is assigned and due nearly every day of class.

Course Philosophy:

Class presentations by the students are simple to do because the enrollment in the course is usually low (10 or fewer). These give students a degree of choice in their topics and require them to go beyond simply reading the course textbook and conduct some research on their own. The presentations are also straightforward to assess with a grading rubric that is consistent with the assignment and applicable to all the topics chosen by the class. Field trip reactions are usually due a few class days later and provide a nice starting point for a wrap-up discussion (usually with lots of clarification) about the tour.


The majority of each student's course grade is determined by traditional exams and homework (in MasteringEnvironmentalScience) that mostly assess a student's understanding of the concepts and vocabulary introduced in class. At the end of nearly every week students have a 10-minute "reflection"—basically an open-notes (low-stakes) quiz—to summarize the week's topics (and from which I can draw exam questions). These assessments, as well most labs, also reward students for their attendance, attention and participation in class.

For the student presentations, I ensure my grading rubric is written in tandem with the assignment, and post it online or hand it out to students when the project is assigned. The field trip reactions are intended to be graded on both the content (correct information) and the writing (grammar, mechanics, usage, etc.), but it's most important that something is turned in. The fact that I've been on the tours numerous times, while each student only experiences it once, accounts for most of the inaccuracies and/or misconceptions I see, and I know students could possibly gain and retain more information by simply paying attention on the tour rather than take notes the whole time.


[file Environmental Science syllabus (Anita Ho, FVCC) (Acrobat (PDF) 133kB May2 19) 'Syllabus']

References and Notes:

Withgott and Laposata, Essential Environment: The Science Behind the Stories, 6th ed. Prentice Hall, 2009
I believe in using the textbooks I require students to purchase, and for the topics we discuss and the depth to which they are covered in this course, this introductory text works well. It is also a condensed ("Essentials of") textbook, which is appealing because it is slightly more affordable for students. I also require students to purchase access to MasteringEnvironmentalScience (an online homework package), which pushes the student cost back up—but I make good use of it, assigning short (10- to 30-minute) exercises due nearly every day of class.

I don't use a lab manual. Instead, I have adapted some labs from resources from the SERC teaching portal and written some up on my own (e.g., for feature-length films we may watch once or twice a semester, and for local utility tours we take).
Outside reading varies from year to year, since the field of environmental science is so dynamic. I often come across news items (usually from the BBC, NPR or a science news site) related to topics we've discussed in class; I'll often send a link to students in a class email if I'd like, but don't require, students to read it. If I come across a well-written article that supplements, echoes or provides another example of information from the textbook or class students should read, I will print and hand it out, often with a short study guide to ensure students are clear what I would like them to understand from it.
None that I have personally read, but I have been exposed to some of them in other workshops, short courses and in-service presentations by faculty and education experts. For example, I have read and heard about and participated in active learning and been introduced to a variety of assessment techniques, and have adopted a few of each here and there in my courses. I am always open to new ideas and activities to try, but it does take time, willpower and effort to change things up.