Planetary boundaries and environmental citizenship: enhancing environmental science through the Princeton University Science and Engineering Education Initiative

Tuesday, 16 December 2014
Catherine A Riihimaki, Kelly K Caylor and David S Wilcove, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, United States
Introductory courses in environmental science are challenging to teach effectively because instructors need to balance the breadth of content coverage with the depth needed to solve complex, interdisciplinary environmental problems. For three years, the Council on Science and Technology at Princeton University has been collaborating with faculty to enhance the introductory environmental science course as part of the Science and Engineering Education Initiative, which aims to ensure that all students, regardless of discipline, graduate with an appreciation for and literacy in science and engineering. Our primary aim in the course is to foster improved environmental citizenship by helping students develop a mechanistic understanding of our individual, societal, and global role as agents of environmental change; an ability to predict or forecast the potential impact that decisions may have on the future structure and function of Earth systems; and a sense of responsibility that leads to informed action and decision-making related to environmental issues. Toward those ends, we have 1) reframed the course curriculum to focus on the central theme of “planetary boundaries” (Rockstrom et al., 2009), including their scientific evidence and policy implications, 2) developed hands-on laboratory exercises that give students authentic research experiences, and 3) modified the assessment to ensure that the students have consistent and clear indications of their mastery of the material. Student feedback through course surveys has been positive, although challenges remain, including coordination across a large teaching staff (two lead instructors for lecture and three TAs for discussion sections, plus a lead lab instructor and one lab TA), optimizing learning activities across the course structure (lecture, precept, and an optional lab), and engaging students that have diverse academic interests.