Humans and Nature: Living in the Anthropocene

Brooke Crowley, Geology and Anthropology, University of Cincinnati


This is a lecture-based interdisciplinary introductory course. We focused on current social and environmental issues that emphasize the links between raw materials, waste, and products used in day-to-day life. I created this class around my belief that each and every one of us has the potential to make a difference. Understanding what the issues, challenges, and potential solutions are is the first step towards creating a better future for ourselves and our planet.

Course Size:

Course Format:
Lecture only

Institution Type:
University with graduate programs, including doctoral programs

Course Context:

This is an interdisciplinary introductory course. It is an elective that covers natural science and general education requirements for students. Students ranged from freshman to senior and a wide variety of disciplines including Anthropology, Geology, International Affairs, Chemistry, and Psychology. I have only taught this course once. Workload was moderately demanding. It was heavy on reading, exams were designed to assess broad learning goals, and assignments were designed to build upon class materials and hone critical thinking skills while allowing students to reflect on their own life styles.

Course Content:

This course surveyed a broad spectrum of interdisciplinary topics including geologic time, atmospheric and oceanic circulation, domestication and the agricultural revolution, urbanism, natural and energy resources, environmental impacts associated with our modern lifestyles, and solutions for a sustainable future (see syllabus). Course assignments were designed to teach students real world lessons.

Course Goals:

Upon completion of this course, students should be able to:
  • Describe the geologic, hydrologic, and carbon cycles.
  • Compare and contrast the impacts of human activities on the environment over the course of our most recent geologic epoch, the Anthropocene.
  • Discuss both the costs and benefits of continuing technological development.
  • Explain why we should be moving beyond fossil fuel resources and describe the benefits and disadvantages of various alternative Energy Resources.
  • Be knowledgeable in how to minimize one's ecological footprint.
  • Course Features:

    I created six formal assignments and three optional extra credit assignments to help students achieve their learning goals. I asked students to calculate their ecological footprints, water usage, keep a "consumption" journal of what they purchased and discarded for a week, create a life cycle analysis for an every day item (explicitly considering the natural and energy resources required to create, use, and disposing of the item or its components when it is no longer considered useful). Each of these exercises included a reflection section where students were asked to consider how to reduce our energy and water use, waste generation, and environmental impacts associated with natural resource extraction, and to discuss what makes these reductions challenging.

    My extra credit assignments were designed to get students involved with local or national communities. For example, they could participate in a local activity, such as a town meeting, or they could write and submit a column about a topic of their choice for a newspaper or website.

    Course Philosophy:

    As a new faculty member at an unfamiliar institution, I was wary of taking on too much at once. I therefore decided to make this introductory course a broad survey of human-environment interactions. I gave students the necessary information to research topics of interest in more depth and encouraged them to take additional courses in Biology, Anthropology, Geology, and Geography. The length and size of the course limited my ability to incorporate field or laboratory work. Nevertheless, I endeavored to get students as involved as possible. For example, I asked students to discuss questions in small groups and then report back to the class. I also created low stakes writing assignments to help students start writing down their thoughts without worrying about a grade. Finally, I encouraged students to post their thoughts and experiences in class or on blackboard. About 1/5 of the students regularly participated in class. One student even gave a guest presentation about his internship at Duke Energy. Additionally, several students who did not vocally participate in class posted links to articles and videos that related to course material. I was repeatedly impressed with what the students shared. Their insights will be incorporated into future course material.


    I assessed student learning using exams, pop quizzes, formal assignments, extra credit opportunities, and free writing assignments. I also asked questions (and invited questions from students) during lectures and carefully observed student interactions during small group discussions. I used student evaluations and informal feedback to determine if these assessments were appropriate.


    Humans and Nature Syllabus (Acrobat (PDF) 128kB Jun14 12)

    References and Notes:

    McPhee, J. (1980) Encounters with the Archdruid. Farrer, Straus, and Giroux, 245 pages. ISBN-10: 0374514313. Redman, C.L. (2001) Human Impact on Ancient Environments. University of Arizona Press, 288 pages. ISBN-10: 0816519633.
    In addition to the books listed above, I used chapters from

    Hill, M.K. (2010) Understanding Environmental Pollution, 3rd Edition. Cambridge University Press, UK, 602 pages, ISBN-10: 0521736692.

    Keller, E.A. (2011) Environmental Geology, 9th Edition, Prentice Hall, 624 pages, ISBN-10: 0321643755.

    Sullivan, R. (2004)Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants, Bloomsbury USA, 256 pages, ISBN-10: 1582343853.

    Students also read several articles from the Union of Concerned Scientists.

    We watched several videos. Selections from the BBC Series "How the Earth Made Us" (narrated by Professor Iain Stewart) were particularly useful.