Topics in Environmental Science: Data and Decision-making in Environmental Protection

Kay Bjornen,
Oklahoma State University-Main Campus


The course is designed to introduce undergraduates to the use of real world data in the context of an interstate water pollution dispute. We depend on different branches of state and federal governments to make rules and enforce them to protect the environment for the good of all. However, rules established to protect the quality of water downstream require limits on the activities of industries and agriculture upstream. This class is structured to examine what the decision making process looks like and the critical role of data to tell a story.

Course Size:

Course Format:
Lecture only

Institution Type:
University with graduate programs, including doctoral programs

Course Context:

This course will be an introduction to data science applied to environmental science for undergraduates. It will be incorporated into a pilot program that increases undergraduate exposure to data skills.

Course Content:

A dispute raised by the state of Oklahoma concerning pollution of the Illinois River from nutrient runoff upstream in Arkansas will be used as a case study to explore the long process of establishing a limit for total phosphorus agreeable to both the states.
Some of the data topics that will be examined include creating good visualizations, sampling protocols, data quality, available sources of open data, not all data is good data and statistical tools for data decision making.

Course Goals:

After completing the course students will know how to:
1. Identify the roles of state and federal courts, regulatory agencies and legislative bodies in mediating interstate water quality issues.
2. Use data to identify and communicate issues in a complex environmental dispute.
3. Use good visualization techniques to communicate effectively.
4. Locate, evaluate and use open sources of environmental data.
5. Apply statistical analysis tools to identify trends in multivariate datasets.

Course Features:

Assignments will focus on content related to the interstate water quality dispute but will use tools such as development of infographics, evaluation of open data sets and statistical evaluation methods using R to simultaneously teach data skills.

Course Philosophy:

Environmental science students are often passionate about environmental protection but may be reluctant to embrace mathematics. The class is planned to teach students why data and mathematical methods are critical in the area of environmental studies.


Hands on assignments using data visualization, evaluation of data sets and finally completion of R tutorials on statistical analyses will be used to assess student's grasp of the data concepts. The final project will be applying Principal Components Analysis to a water quality data set.

References and Notes:

No text

References and supplemental materials are listed in the syllabus

A reading list is included on the syllabus. The materials range from news coverage of local issues to the text of the Clean Water Act. Students are also asked to complete an annotated bibliography of peer reviewed literature establishing limits TMDLS of total phosphorus, the pollutant of concern.