Course: ENV201
Instructor: Wilcove
F 2015

Description of Course Goals and Curriculum

ENV 201 is the introductory environmental science class, and a prerequisite for the ENV certificate. It has two parts - ENV 201A, which is an STN, and ENV 201B, which is an STL. In addition to attending the same lectures and precepts as ENV 201A students, ENV 201B students have a three-hour lab section each week, and the grading is calculated differently to include lab report grades. This course analysis will discuss the elements of ENV 201A.

This is a large lecture course, and many students not majoring in the sciences choose to take ENV 201A to fulfill their STN general education requirement for graduation. There are two lectures a week, 50 minutes each lecture. There is also one 50 minute precept weekly. A lecture involves either Professor Wilcove or Professor Caylor speaking with accompanying lecture slides that are later posted on Blackboard. There is a weekly assignment for precept due at 5pm every Monday. Everything is completed individually; there are no group projects outside of class, though students often work in groups in precept. Both professors hold office hours, are approachable before and after lecture, and even schedule a meal or two in the dining hall over the course of the semester where they can get to know groups of students better (and the conversation does not solely revolve around coursework!)

The professors aim to explore with students how human activities have affected land use, agriculture, fisheries, biodiversity, and the use of energy. By the end of the course, Professor Wilcove and Professor Caylor expect that students are able to think critically about the scientific, political, economic, and social dimensions of these environmental topics, being able to use knowledge of a contemporary environmental problem in order to construct social and political solutions. They outline three specific goals in their syllabus: they want students to have a thorough understanding of environmental issues that will affect human populations within their lifetimes, they want students to develop both a scientific and a policy-oriented perspective on these issues, and thirdly, they would like students to understand the risks and tradeoffs associated with each proposed solution to these issues.

The course is divided into five units: land use, agriculture, fisheries, biodiversity, and the use of energy. The course does not proceed chronologically through time, nor does each unit build on the previous, they are pretty self-contained. However, aspects of all units will inform how students think about the other units - part of the understanding built throughout the course is how interconnected life on Earth is, and therefore how complicated environmental problems and solutions are.

There are practically no hidden demands in the course. The reading load is about 30-50 pages of news and/or science articles a week. The articles are always related to the topics of the lectures that week. If a student has taken an environmental studies class prior to this, many themes will be familiar. Even students with biology and chemistry background will recognize course concepts such as photosynthesis, cellular respiration, and energy conversion. However, the professors do not assume that all students are completely familiar with these topics. They spend class time explaining these concepts, and the exams do not test the specifics of these processes. The homework for precept and precept discussion both involve reflection on one’s own experience with these topics, so whether students have grown up on a farm or in a city, all experiences are welcome and important to discussion of policy solutions to environmental issues.The more connections one is able to make to their own life and interaction with the environment, the easier it will be to understand the material.

Learning From Classroom Instruction

The professors have narrowed their focus enough that they are not rushing the class or cramming in material in order to finish in time by the end of the semester. Lectures, precepts, and readings are all correlated each week. Professors emphasize the main points they would like students to come away with in each lecture, and preceptors do the same for each precept. In order to learn course content, attending lecture, precept, and finishing precept readings are all incredibly helpful, because it allows one to access the same course content in a few different ways over the course of a week. Students will also be familiar with aspects of almost every course topic just by nature of living and interacting with the environment (ie driving, eating food, using electricity, etc.)

Laptops are allowed for taking notes in lecture, though they often prove more distracting in general. Note-taking in lecture is recommended, as the lecture slides (that are later published on Blackboard) contain keywords, photos, and graphs, but not their definition, or entire concept related to them, so waiting to look at the lecture slides online later will only give students a preliminary understanding of the lecture’s contents.It can be difficult to write down everything the professor is saying in lecture, but they will emphasize the main concepts throughout the lecture, so that students know what important topics are to remember. It is also worth writing down connections professors make to the weekly readings during the lecture, as well as connections to former units. The professors also do a wrap-up of the important concepts from lecture in the last five minutes of class, and look ahead to the next lecture. Professors will occasionally pose questions to the class that relate to that week’s reading, but usually only call on students who have raised their hands to answer.

Learning For and From Assignments

There are two assessment aspects of the course - weekly precept homework assignments, and in class midterm and final exams.  

The precept homework prompts often involve comparing the stances taken by authors of two or three science articles, or brainstorming a solution to the described environmental issue, asking students to write around 250 words each week to answer the prompt. In precept, the articles are discussed, and students often do a policy-making activity in groups, or are broken up randomly and asked to informally debate the ideas discussed in the articles. Because precept homework is due the same day as the first lecture for that week, students are not expected to incorporate parts of lecture into their homework. The articles are meant to be read in and of themselves, and end up giving a first look at the theme of lectures that week. It is worth reviewing the readings before precept, though, after having attended lectures for the week, because one will have more background context for understanding the articles. Students are not assumed to be completely familiar with all elements of an environmental issue, so grading is often more addressing effort and understanding what the arguments are, rather than coming up with the “right” answer.

The midterm and final exams are both made up of questions that require short answer responses. They cover lecture and reading material, and do not ask students for any outside information. The synthesis required on the exams of understanding of scientific, social, political, and economic factors in environmental issues is very similar to the analysis completed in precept and for homework assignments. For this reason, it is important to make sure that one understands precept discussions and homework assignments thoroughly before exam periods.

For both the midterm and the final exam, the professors distribute a study guide with questions that are similar in structure and topic to those that might appear on the final exam. As part of precept homework in the weeks leading up to the midterm and final, they ask students in the course to submit a question they think could appear on the exam, thereby encouraging students to “think like a professor” and come up with a reasonable question that asks for critical thinking about a certain theme of the course. They do not make public the answer key for the study guides, so if students have questions about their responses, they should feel free to email or speak with their preceptors or professors to make sure they understand the material before the exam.

It can be helpful to prep for the short answer questions on the midterm and final by attempting to fill out the study guide on one’s own, without using notes (because all exams are closed-book), and then going through afterward with notes, filling in the blanks. After having completed this, quizzing classmates about answers to their questions can reveal other potential answers to questions. Again, because of the complicated nature of environmental problems and solutions, multiple types of answers can be counted as correct.

External Resources

If a student has a keyword, but has missed the explanation of its importance in lecture, simply Googling the word can often help students find the background knowledge. There is no official textbook to the course, so various science websites would help struggling students with background. The professors and preceptors also make clear that they are readily available by email or office hours if students have questions, at any point in the semester.

What Students Should Know About This Course For Purposes Of Course Selection

The professors make clear throughout the semester that they would like students to actively engage with the course material by bringing their own life experience with environmental issues into their precept discussions and understanding during lecture. They also highlight their interest in getting to know students personally, as they do not lead any of the precepts, so the only opportunity to get to know them is directly before or after class, or during office hours. They have structured the lecture material, homework assignments, and exams to be dependent on each other, so that if you can follow along with those assignments, one does not need to do extra writing, reading, flashcard-making, etc., outside of class. The clarity of the course demands, as well as relevance to everyday life, makes this course a very engaging and rewarding one for anyone even slightly interested in environmental studies in the context of global affairs, and a manageable STN course for those looking to fulfill the requirement.

Fundamentals of Environmental Studies: Population, Land Use, Biodiversity, and Energy

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