Introduction to Sustainability Science

Tracey Holloway, Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, University of Wisconsin--Madison


This course aims to develop a solutions-oriented understanding of environmental and energy issues. Through interactive lectures, field trips, and problem-based homework sets, the class introduces basic quantitative analysis methods and solves problems inspired by real-world sustainability issues.

Course Size:

Course Format:

Institution Type:
University with graduate programs, including doctoral programs

Course Context:

This is an introductory course, which asks for some calculus experience (including concurrent enrollment) as a prerequisite. The class fulfills the physical science breadth requirement of our College of Letters & Sciences, and also fills the physical science distribution requirement in a new Environmental Studies undergraduate major. It is too soon to characterize the typical distribution of students, but I expect 30% science or engineering majors; 70% non-science majors. Our Environmental Studies major requires a 2nd major, so none of the students are only majoring in Environmental Studies.

Course Content:

The course focuses on quantitative problem-solving skills, especially drawing on mathematics, engineering, atmospheric science, and physical geography, applied to current sustainability issues. We focus on building a basic understanding of how human and natural systems interact, especially the major issues connecting electricity, transportation, materials and waste, and food with climate change, land use, water, and air quality. Most quantitative problem-solving is done through homework sets, which introduce students to the Stella systems modeling software, and to an electricity simulation model developed here at UW-Madison ( Class time is devoted to group discussion, field trips (especially to campus research and operational facilities), and interactive lecture.

Course Goals:

Skills: Back-of-the-envelope problem-solving; unit conversions; quantifying resource use and waste; working with an electricity model; building simple system models from scratch with Stella; qualitative evaluation of satellite data; basic quantitative evaluation on observed environmental and energy data (e.g. ozone measurements; CO2 from ice cores; building energy use); calculating system regeneration times; life-cycle analysis calculations

Concepts: Scales (single building to global systems); difference between model and measurements; different ways of "measuring" sustainability (kWh vs. LEED certification vs. carbon emissions vs. ecological footprint etc.); difference between climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies; exposure to different research methods; ecosystems services; links among sustainability issues (e.g. climate change -> energy->biofuels->ag & food ->fertilizer ->water quality->biodiversity etc.)

Knowledge: Familiarity with sources of electricity, electricity demand, units; basic understanding of air emissions and air quality; basic understanding of climate science; difference between weather vs. climate; familiarity with prediction methods (e.g. modeling vs. extrapolation); connection between land cover and climate; human drivers of land use change; basic understanding of water resource issues; basic understanding of transportation systems

Course Features:

The class is set up as weekly 2.5 hour meetings, to facilitate regular field trips and extended discussion of material. Most of the quantitative problem solving takes place in homework sets and background readings, most of which are developed by Holloway. The original materials, referenced in the syllabus, are inspired by the graduate-level texts "Consider a Spherical Cow" by John Harte and "Should We Risk It?" by Daniel Kammen and David Hazzenzahl (to which Holloway served as a contributor).

Course Philosophy:

Coming from a background in atmospheric science, I have also integrated energy, transportation, land use, and public health into my graduate teaching and research activities over the years. It has struck me that there are many common methodologies and ways of thinking that are similar across these fields -- systems thinking, modeling and measurements, risk, prediction, interaction across spatial and temporal scales, etc. The class intends to focus on these connective analysis approaches to expose students to a wide range of sustainability science and engineering issues.


Assessment takes place through weekly homework sets, 3 exams per semester, and in-class discussion. We have a class blog to share ideas outside of class, so I can get an idea of how students connect with the material through this format as well. "Clickers" are used in class to solicit feedback on topics related to reading, homework, or class topics, and to further assess whether key concepts and knowledge are understood.


References and Notes: