Science, Society, and Sustainability

Ellen Metzger, Geology and Science Education, San Jose State University


The participation-intensive course is an elective for teachers pursuing an MA in Science Education and upper-level undergraduate and graduate students drawn from geology and other disciplines. Teaching strategies include lecture/discussion, videos, reading and writing assignments, student presentations and in-class activities. Topics include an introduction to sustainability and Earth systems thinking, consideration of how natural resources and services support human well-being, and exploration of how science informs and is informed by its societal context.

Course Size:
less than 15

Course Format:
Lecture only

Institution Type:
University with graduate programs, primarily masters programs

Course Context:

This evolving course serves students with diverse backgrounds in education, geology, biology, chemistry, and physics. Sustainability is an organizing theme for student investigations that reach across traditional disciplinary boundaries to develop a more holistic view of sustainability and its scientific/environmental, social, and economic components.

Course Content:

The course begins with an introduction to the Earth systems and sustainability concepts, followed by consideration of basic human needs for energy, water, food, and materials and investigation of how pursuit of these needs perturbs natural biogeochemical cycles. The social and economic dimensions of sustainability are explored through discussion of readings from Speth's book Bridge at the Edge of the World. The content of the later part of the course is student-driven, as they select sustainability-related topics that best match their interests. Student presentations, writing assignments, and in-class discussions are assessed for depth of thinking, synthesis of ideas from multiple sources, and quality of writing

Course Goals:

The goals of this course are to:
- become familiar with some key global environmental problems that could threaten the future habitability of our planet and to understand their scientific, social, and economic implications.
- develop an understanding of how human systems impact and are impacted by natural systems.
- examine possible paths towards envisioning and achieving a future that meets the needs of present and future generations without exceeding the capacity of Earth to supply resources and absorb wastes.

As a result of participation in this course, students will be able to
- use a multidisciplinary approach to analyze problems arising from the intersection of human and natural systems
- critically examine diverse perspectives
- apply the concepts of carrying capacity and ecological footprints to assess the long-term sustainability of lifestyles around the world
- Further develop problem-solving and written and oral communication skills.

Course Features:

During the course of the semester, responsibility for learning is gradually transferred from instructor to students. Students help to determine course content by selecting sustainability-related topics of most interest to them for their class presentations and paper. Student-generated questions guide weekly small group and whole class discussions of assigned readings. Student participation is further supported through classroom activities developed by Creative Change Educational Solutions

Course Philosophy:

Earth system science, with its inherently interdisciplinary content and focus on complexly interacting systems, is used a context for sustainability topics. Exploration of biochemical cycles (carbon, water, nitrogen, and phosphorus) forms the basis for understanding how natural flows of energy and materials are changed by human activity. The course models student-centered learning for science teachers and introduces learners to critical analysis of readings from a diverse selection of popular and scholarly publications.

Science, Society and Sustainability is closely aligned with San Jose State University's growing emphasis on cross-college collaborations for teaching, research and the pursuit of external funding.


Assessment is based on four components; participation (30%), presentations (25%), homework and in-class activities (10%) and a final exam (10)%. The final "exam "is take-home reflection paper.


Syllabus for Science, Society, and Sustainability (Microsoft Word 76kB Jun22 12)

Teaching Materials:

Readings and Other Resources (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 17kB Jun22 12) Final Exam (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 15kB Jun22 12)

References and Notes:

Speth, James Gustav, 2009,The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability: Yale University Press.