Energy and the Environment

Trace Jordan, Assistant Director for Foundations of Scientific Inquiry in the Morse Academic Plan, New York University, New York, NY

A 2002 SENCER Model

Energy and the Environment is a course offering within the large-scale Foundations of Scientific Inquiry program at NYU. The course typically enrolls between 120 and 130 students in a large lecture class, with laboratory sections of 20 students. The course uses contemporary environmental issues, including global warming, the ozone layer, and water quality, as a framework for introducing foundational principles of chemistry, such as atomic and molecular structure, chemical reactivity, and thermodynamics. Lectures are organized according to a method developed by Eric Mazur, a professor of Physics at Harvard University, in which the scientific presentation in the lecture is divided into segments of 15 – 20 minutes, followed by the assignment of an in-class conceptual or quantitative problem. This strategy stimulates students to actively examine whether they can understand the latest material and provides immediate feedback for the instructor, who can then decide whether to review the topic further or move on to the next subject. Labs provide students with an introduction to experimental methods in chemistry, such as preparing gases, measuring the heat of a chemical reaction, and acid-base titration.

Because environmental science is an inherently interdisciplinary pursuit, some laboratories address topics in physics, such as atomic bonding and molecular structure, the properties of light, and the construction of electrical circuits using solar cells. Two laboratory sessions are specifically devoted to exploring environmental policy issues, including an overview of environmental risk assessment and a unit on global warming. Students also work collaboratively in groups of three on a specific research project over a period of five weeks. Examples of projects include, “Can Hudson River Water be Made Safe to Drink?” and “What is the Effect of Acid Rain on Plant Growth?” During the project, students collect their own water samples, design experiments, plot their results using an Excel spreadsheet, and generate their own scientific conclusions, which they present to their peers for evaluation.

Course Learning Goals and Objectives

  • To acquire a knowledge of foundational concepts, processes and terminology in chemistry
  • To develop skills in problem solving and the use of quantitative reasoning
  • To understand the methods of scientific investigation and appreciate new advances in our understanding of environmental science
  • To understand the techniques used in environmental experiments and computer simulations
  • To address the complex economic, political and policy aspects of environmental issues

Linking Science and Social Issues

What are the capacious civic questions or problems addressed in the course?

A central pedagogical objective of Energy and the Environment is to provide non-science majors with the necessary scientific and quantitative foundation to actively follow current scientific topics and their social impact. To this end, the Energy and Environment course uses contemporary environmental issues as a framework for introducing foundational principles of chemistry such as atomic and molecular structure, chemical reactivity, thermodynamics, etc.

What basic science is covered in the course and how is it linked to public policy questions?

Environmental Theme Scientific Principles Policy Issues Lab Experiment
Air pollution Gases, pressure, atmosphere, concentrations EPA Clean Air Act, health effects of pollution, risk assessment Risk Assessment
Gases in a Breath
The Ozone Layer Atomic structure, chemical bonding, UV radiation, CFCs and ozone depletion Scientific debates, role of the Du Pont Corporation, Montreal Protocol Properties of Light and Photochemistry
Global Warming Molecular
geometry, IR radiation
debates on global warming, global policies on CO2 emissions Molecular Models and Vibrations
Global Warming Paper
Climate Modeling Factors affecting climate, constructing climate models Interpreting climate models, using models for policy decisions Computer Climate Modeling
Drinking Water Quality Properties of water, ions EPA Clean Water Act, industrial pollutants, Local Case Studies Water Quality Project
Acid Rain Acids and bases, pH measurements,
lake acidification
EPA Clean Air Act, methods of lake remediation Water Quality Project
Fossil Fuels Energy of chemical
reactions, combustion, sources of fossil fuels
U.S. & world use of fossil fuels, current & future resources, energy economics No Lab
Alternative Energy Solar energy, wind energy, hydroelectric, hydrogen cells 1970s energy crisis, political influences on energy research No Lab

What strategies does the course use to both advance science education and foster civic engagement?

The structure and objectives of the course can best be illustrated by discussing three specific examples in which scientific principles are linked to public policy issues:

Issue 1: The Ozone Layer

The non-science students in the class are usually aware of ozone depletion and its potential risks but have little understanding of its scientific foundations. This section begins with the stunning graphical images of the ozone hole as recorded by the TOMS satellite, then proceeds to compare the chemical bonding of atoms in oxygen and ozone. Since ozone reacts with UV light in the stratosphere, it is necessary to review the properties of electromagnetic radiation. We then instruct students about the specific mechanism of ozone depletion by chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) as proposed by Sherwood Rowland and Mario Molina. However, this mechanism was not immediately accepted by the scientific community and was vigorously attacked by scientists from Du Pont Corporation who manufactured CFCs. Using their newly-acquired knowledge, students discuss the evidence and show how economic and political factors can impact on science policy decisions. This section concludes with an overview of the Montreal Protocol and its extensions for reducing CFC emissions, which represents a successful global policy initiative based on scientific foundations.

Issue 2: Global Warming

Global warming remains one of the most complex environmental challenges. Discussion of this issue with the students is centered on three connected questions: (1) Is global warming currently occurring?; (2) If it is occurring, does it have an anthropogenic origin?; (3) If it is both occurring and man-made, what policy steps should be taken to alleviate future problems? This topic is used to assist students to think critically and quantitatively, since in many cases the scientific evidence provides only partial answers. We begin by introducing recent evidence from the Vostok ice core that traces the earth’s climate over thousands of years and shows a correlation between temperature and carbon dioxide levels. Moving to more recent times, we review records of global temperature over the last 150 years together with accurate scientific measurements of carbon dioxide concentrations. The ability to critically assess scientific evidence is central to understanding global warming, so students are given a paper assignment in which they use actual experimental data as a foundation for arguing for or against an anthropogenic influence on global warming and whether or not there should be global policy intervention. These papers are then used as the foundation for an in-class debate in which students present their ideas and engage in a constructive critical discourse.

Issue 3: Water Quality

Our experience has shown that most non-science students have never engaged in the process of independent scientific investigation. Although most students took laboratory science in high school, their experiments were usually formulaic and focused on getting the “right answer.” We have recently designed several inquiry-based laboratory projects to provide our students with a realistic experience of scientific investigation in the context of exploring various aspects of water quality. Students work collaboratively in groups of three on a specific project over five weeks, where the specific project is different for each group of students. Examples of projects include “Can Hudson River Water be Made Safe to Drink?” and “What is the Effect of Acid Rain on Plant Growth?” During the project students collect their own water samples, design experiments, plot their results using an Excel spreadsheet, and generate their own scientific conclusions. The culmination of the project is for students to create a poster and present their results and conclusions to their fellow students in the laboratory group. Students also participate in asking questions and providing numerical scores for poster presentations using criteria such as background research, experimental procedure, and whether the conclusions are supported by the scientific data. These experimental investigations occur alongside discussion of water quality and current EPA regulations in the course lectures. Further information about the water quality projects is given as an appendix.

We are currently expanding the integration of outside speakers and policy perspectives into the course. For example, we have initiated a collaboration with Professor Rae Zimmerman, Professor of Planning and Public Administration and Director of the Urban Planning Program at New York University. Professor Zimmerman has a B.S. in Chemistry, a Ph.D. in Planning, and extensive experience working with the EPA and New York City regulators on air and water quality issues. She is also a principal investigator for a recently awarded NSF grant to investigate the scientific foundations of modern urban infrastructure. We have also contacted Doreen Bader from the Educational Division of the New York Department of Environmental Protection with the goal of enhancing the connection of course topics to pressing issues in the local environment. Finally, the NYU Medical School contains the Nelson Institute for Environmental Medicine, one of the country’s leading centers for studying environmental health, and we have invited members of the medical faculty to speak to our students. By drawing on these local resources, the Energy and Environment is able to integrate scientific, policy and health issues in treating a particular environmental topic. We do not currently have a required or optional service learning component in the course, but we are exploring this possibility with the Hudson River Project, which is eager to recruit students to assist with their work.

The Course

A major priority in the design of this course is the engagement of students as scientists and citizens. This is accomplished through the variety of techniques described below.

Energy and the Environment Syllabus

Download (PDF, 291KB)

Course Description

This course explores the scientific foundations of current environmental issues and their challenges for public policy. The syllabus is split into three major sections: atmosphere, water and energy. The first section begins by investigating the composition of the atmosphere and the chemical processes that cause air pollution, ozone depletion, and global warming. Moving to the study of water, the course explores the properties of this unique solvent, the effect of various aqueous pollutants, and the origin of acid rain. The course concludes with a discussion of the energetics of chemical reactions, our continuing reliance on fossil fuels, and the potential of alternative energy sources. The laboratory experiments are closely integrated with the lecture topics and provide handson explorations of central course themes, including a multi-week project to investigate one aspect of water quality in detail. Throughout the course we also examine how scientific studies of the environment are intimately connected with political, economic and policy concerns.

Teaching and Learning Strategies

Having between 120 to 130 students in a lecture raises some challenges for promoting active learning. By building upon the pioneering work of others, however, I have been able to design activities that have proven to be effective at stimulating student engagement in the class.

Establishing a dialogue with the students:
Most students who come to my class are expecting it to be an exercise in transmitting factual information, where I speak and they write notes. From many conversations with students, I have learned that this type of passive learning was what turned many of them away from science in high school. From the very first class, therefore, I establish a dialogue with the students to encourage two-way communication. Initially, this takes the form of regularly asking questions of the students, concerning both scientific information and public policy issues. In my experience, students are often uncomfortable with this approach at first, and it takes two or three lectures before many of them feel comfortable speaking in such a large class. However, once the dialogue is established, it creates an environment where I regularly solicit many responses to my questions and where students are not abashed to ask questions of their own. This dialogue is the foundation for many of the other teaching and learning activities in the class.

In-Class Science Problem Solving:
Eric Mazur, a Professor of Physics at Harvard University, has promoted a method of in-class problem solving that I have adapted and found to be very effective. We are all familiar with the scenario where we give a lecture exposition on a scientific topic, only to find that students have not grasped either the basic point or how to apply it. In the Mazur method, the scientific presentation in the lecture is divided into segments of 15 – 20 minutes, which are immediately followed by asking students to work on a conceptual or simple numerical problem. This strategy stimulates students to actively examine whether they can understand the latest material and provides immediate feedback for the instructor, who can then decide whether to review the topic further or move on to the next subject.

I have tried two variants of the in-class problem solving approach. The first is using the “think-pair-share” method, where students first try the problem on their own and then discuss the result with their neighbor in the class. The purpose of this discussion is for each student to explain the solution to his or her learning partner, an example of on-the-spot peer instruction in the classroom. During this process I walk around the lecture room, listening to students talk and giving hints if necessary. I then call upon the students in the class to volunteer a solution to the problem, which I then write on the board.

Although this method engages the students in a lively discussion, I find that there are some limitations. First, it is possible for students with weaker preparation to make a half-hearted effort at the problem since they know they will get the answer explained to them by another student. Second, it is often difficult to assess how many students have had success with the problem, since the vocal students who volunteer an answer are often the ones who have the least difficulty. Therefore, around every two weeks I will employ a second method that is more formal. In this approach, I give a problem that students work on individually and that I collect immediately after completion. I then review all 120 solutions after class and can assess the proportion of students in the class who have successfully grasped the topic. If there are a substantial number of students who had difficulty, I will return to an explanation of this topic at the beginning of the next lecture.

In-Class Writing Assignments on Science Policy:

Another in-class exercise that I employ is for students to write a short assessment of a particular environmental policy issue. As discussed in Section A, the E&E course is organized around certain environmental themes such as ozone depletion, global warming, acid rain, alternative energy sources, etc. Each of these themes naturally lends itself to one or more of these policy writing assignments. Some of the assignments are based on a question that I pose after covering the scientific and regulatory foundations of a particular topic, for example:

  • How do we decide the acceptable level of risk when regulating the levels of harmful pollutants in the air we breathe or the water we drink?
  • Do you believe that the current scientific evidence for global warming is sufficient to make serious economic concessions to avert serious environmental problems in the future? Explain why or why not.
  • Renewable energy sources continue to play only a very small role in the energy economy of the United States. Select one type of renewable energy and describe what changes would you make – e.g., energy infrastructure, taxation system, research grants, etc. – to promote its use. Do you think that such active intervention is justifiable?

It is obvious that such complex questions cannot be properly addressed in such a short assignment, but for many students this provides their first opportunity to think carefully about a scientific policy issue. Students can then share their policy statements with their neighbors and, after this discussion, I call upon volunteers to present their ideas to the class. I specifically aim to solicit a diversity of opinions, which often leads to a lively debate in the class. I have observed that students who are shy about answering the scientific problems will often speak up about policy issues during this discussion.

Another type of in-class writing assignment is based upon environmental news articles from the New York Times. This method is particularly effective if, as often happens, there is a breaking story of national or global importance that directly connects to the subject we are covering in the class. Due to time constraints, I will use either a short article or an excerpt from a longer article, which I distribute to students in the class. I then ask a focus question – similar to the examples shown above – that students must answer in light of reading the article. After writing a response and sharing their thoughts with their neighbor, I again ask for volunteers to present to the class.

I will often collect both types of policy writing assignments from students at the end of the class. This enables me to use the assignments to assess the range of perspectives in the class and, in some cases, to use specific ideas as a springboard for other topics.

Group Research Projects and Presentations

One component of this course that has proven to be successful is the assignment of group research projects and presentations. This has taken two
forms over the years: (1) a multi-week experimental project in the laboratory to investigate one aspect of water quality; or (2) a project using print and web sources to investigate a renewable energy source. Since the water quality experiments have been discussed earlier in Part C, this section will focus on the renewable energy projects. The goals of this project were the following:

  • To foster collaboration among the three students working in a group.
  • To provide an opportunity for students to investigate an environmental topic in more depth and to develop the ability to assess the usefulness
    and reliability of various sources.
  • To encourage students to evaluate the potential of this energy source for large scale, sustainable energy production and to make an argument for or against this capability.
  • To develop students’ skills in giving oral presentations to their peers.

A copy of the guidelines provided to students is provided in an Appendix at the end of this section. In summary, students randomly selected a renewable energy source (using numbered ping pong balls) and investigated three major questions:

  1. What are the scientific principles underlying energy production by this source?
  2. Describe two sites using this source for energy production, one in the United States and one abroad.
  3. Evaluate the potential of this source for large-scale energy production in the U.S.

One of the later laboratory sessions in the course was devoted to students giving presentations on their projects, with many groups making sophisticated slides using PowerPoint. After the presentation, students have the following weekend to prepare a more complete report on the topic, which is then submitted to the professor and the laboratory instructor for evaluation. As a summary conclusion to the projects, part of the final lecture was devoted to a class discussion of which renewable energy source, out of the seven different ones investigated, had the best potential for large-scale production.

In general, we have found that the energy projects are valuable for promoting student engagement in the E&E course. The design of the projects explicitly encourages students to consider both scientific and policy factors in making an assessment about the viability of the renewable source for large-scale energy production. Most students become very devoted to their group projects in a way that goes beyond their commitment to other aspects of the course, and the quality of their presentations and reports is generally very high. When students were asked on the student evaluation form about whether the energy project had been “a valuable learning experience,” 69 % of then responded in the affirmative.

Laboratory Experiences

From the inception of the FSI program, there was a commitment by the NYU faculty and administration that all non-majors in the Natural Science courses should acquire a meaningful experience in experimental laboratory investigation. The laboratory is therefore one of the central components of the E&E course and we have committed much of our effort to making this a rewarding and educational experience for the students.

As discussed in Part A, the laboratory session is held once a week for 1 hour 40 minutes. This duration is quite short by conventional standards, but was a necessary compromise given the very large number of students in the FSI program. This schedule means that we have had to be creative in designing experiments that can be accomplished by students within the allotted timeframe. Each laboratory section contains 21 students, working in
groups of three. We have also experimented with sections of 22 students working in pairs in order to maximize the hands-on experience, but this arrangement is more difficult within our available laboratory space. The laboratory sessions are taught by trained graduate students, who are recruited from both the Chemistry and the Biology Departments at NYU. The development of an effective “teaching team,” which partners the professor with the laboratory instructors in a unified educational mission, is discussed further in Section D.

We have a very expansive view regarding the activities that occur during the “laboratory” sessions in the E&E course. We certainly provide the non-majors students with an introduction to experimental methods in chemistry, such as preparing gases, measuring the heat of a chemical reaction, and acid-base titration. However, environmental science is an inherently interdisciplinary pursuit, so we also provide students with some
laboratories that may be considered as physics, such as the properties of light and the construction of electrical circuits using solar cells. Finally, we use two laboratory sessions for exploring environmental policy issues – an opening overview of risk assessment and, later in the course, a discussion of global warming.

The laboratory component of the E&E course has been taught in two different configurations. The first configuration is where we offer weekly experiments or discussions, which are closely connected to the topics being discussed in lecture and the relevant readings in Chemistry in Context. This arrangement allows students to complete a different project each week and provides them with a diversity of laboratory experiences. Even though we were satisfied with these experiments, I became concerned that students were not engaged in inquiry-driven activities during the laboratory sessions. I therefore devised and taught an alternative configuration for the laboratories, one in which the first half followed the weekly experiment format but the second half was devoted to a multi-week, inquiry-based project on one aspect of water quality. This change certainly provided students with a richer experience in scientific investigation and, at the conclusion of the project, with the presentation of their results. We did find, however, that the water projects were extremely intensive in terms of faculty time, laboratory instructor responsibilities, and preparation by the laboratory staff.

Evaluating Learning

Grade Allocation

Midterm Exam – 15%
Midterm Exam 2 – 15%
Final Exam – 25%
Laboratory – 35%
Homework – 10%

In-class assignments will be regularly given out in lectures, and some of these will be collected and reviewed. There will be no formal grade component for these assignments, but they will be used in deciding cases of borderline grades.

Exams and Quizzes

  • The exams will contain questions covering the lectures, readings, and laboratory projects. Before each exam, a set of study questions for the lecture topics will be distributed. The final exam will be cumulative and integrate topics from throughout the course. Homework assignments provide practice with some types of questions that will appear on the exams.
  • If you will miss one midterm exam because of illness, you must contact Professor Jordan by e-mail before the start of the exam and provide a doctor’s note explaining your absence. No make-up exams will be given for the course. Instead, the final exam will count as 45 % of your course total. Since the final is cumulative and the most difficult exam of the course, this option is not advisable unless extreme circumstances prevail. If you miss two midterm exams you will be required to withdraw from the course.
  • A make-up will be given for the final exam only for an exceptional reason that must be discussed with Professor Jordan prior to the exam. In this case a grade of incomplete will be given for the course and the make-up will be scheduled for the fall 2000 semester. No alternative date for the final exam will be offered at the end of the spring semester. Please avoid making travel plans to leave NYU before the date of the final exam.

Homework Format and Policies

  • The homework assignment will contain questions that review the course material and/or questions that relate to the lab project. Certain questions on the homework assignments may require you to access information on relevant web sites. Each homework assignment will contain 10 questions, of which 3 will be graded. Each homework assignment will be worth 10 points, with 3 points per graded question and
    1 point for completing all the questions.
  • All work must be submitted on time for full credit. Any late assignments must be placed in the mailbox outside Main 202 and will be penalized 5 points per day (excluding weekends). If you miss a lecture or laboratory session due to a documented absence you are still required to complete the homework assignment. Contact your laboratory instructor to arrange a suitable deadline for completion of the work.

Weekly Experiments

  • Laboratory work until the beginning of the water projects will consist of weekly experiments. These experiments have been designed to cover central topics in the lectures and to provide you with the opportunity to become skilled at scientific observation and data interpretation. Some of the experiments also use computers since they are now a central tool in scientific investigation.
  • Each weekly experiment is worth 50 points:
    Attendance – 10 Points
    Quiz – 10 Points
    Lab Assignment – 30 Points
  • Questions for the laboratory quiz will be based on the description of the experiment in the laboratory manual and may also include pertinent material from the lectures and readings. Arriving more than 10 minutes late for the lab will exclude you from taking the quiz.
  • The lab assignment must be completed and submitted during the laboratory period by working collaboratively with your laboratory partners.

Background and Context

Energy and the Environment, a course at New York University, 269 Mercer Street, New York, New York 10003.
Trace Jordan, Assistant Director, Foundations of Scientific Inquiry, Morse Academic Plan,, Phone: (212)998-8078.

Course History

As discussed above, Energy and the Environment (E&E) is only one course offering within the large-scale Foundations of Scientific Inquiry program at NYU. It was first given in fall 1997 and continues to be offered in both fall and spring semesters of the academic year. The typical enrollment is between 120 and 130 students each semester. Since its inception, the E&E course has been taught by seven different faculty instructors. The course format follows our standard model of two weekly lectures of 1 hour 15 minute duration, plus a weekly laboratory session of 1 hour 40 minutes. Students sign up for a laboratory section that best fits their class schedule, and each section has a maximum size of 21 students. The laboratory sections are taught by trained graduate students drawn from the science departments at NYU. Effectively collaboration between the faculty instructor and the graduate students is an essential component of a successful course and is discussed further below. The materials for the experiments are prepared by the full-time laboratory staff, who also set up the necessary equipment each week.

Graduate Teaching Assistants:
Throughout the entire FSI program, we try to foster the principle that both the faculty lecturer and the graduate laboratory instructors are members of a unified “teaching team.” The level to which this ideal is accomplished depends largely on the faculty member, who must take the lead in mentoring the graduate students. When this arrangement has worked successfully, however, it is beneficial to everyone involved. The key contact is a weekly course meeting that is attended by the professor, the graduate laboratory instructors, and a member of the laboratory staff. This meeting serves two purposes: To discuss course logistics and to run through the laboratory experiment for the upcoming week. We have found that the weekly meetings are very effective for creating a cohesive structure of the course.

The E&E course has proven to be sustainable for five years and has been taught by seven different faculty instructors. This goal was a deliberate part of the planning for the course. Since the FSI program is such a large operation, it is essential that we achieve stability in the course offerings while, of course, still being open to modifications and improvements. When we recruit a new faculty member to teach a course, I will have several meetings with him or her to discuss the course and strategies that have proven effective in the past. We also provide the new instructor with a “resource manual,” which contains a compilation of all the laboratory experiments together with previous course syllabi, examinations, homework questions, etc. We have found that the resource manual is very beneficial in enabling new instructors to acquire a good understanding of the
course. We do not, however, insist that the course must be taught in a particular way. Each faculty member brings his or her own unique perspective to the course and will teach it is a slightly different manner. By allowing faculty to explore some variation within the general guidelines of the course, we believe we have achieved a good balance between consistency and flexibility.

Related Resources

Below you will find related news articles, bibliographies, web sites and SENCER documents related to the Power of Water

SENCER Resources

Below are resources from SENCER documents and publications related to the Power of Water Course


Reinventing Myself as a Professor: The Catalytic Role of SENCER by Terry McGuire

Why Should You Care about Biological Diversity? by Eleanor J. Sterling, Nora Bynum, Ian Harrison, Melina Laverty, Sacha Spector, and Elizabeth Johnson (PDF)

Ektina, E. and Mestre, J.P. 2004. Implications of Learning Research for Teaching Science to Non-Science Majors, 1-26.