Inside the Classroom: The Impact of Environmental Cycles: Earth, Air, Fire, and Water
When I take students on summer geology study trips to Iceland as part of Northeastern’s Dialogues program, I have targeted field interpretation skills that I want everyone to acquire, but those trips are also “trips about everything,” because there’s also much to learn about what choices people in Iceland have made over the past 1,000 years to live sustainably in a volcanically active environment along the Arctic Circle, etc. The choices people make often affect their local environment, and paying attention to the places people have chosen to live, and not to live, are in turn affected by environmental hazards like volcano-triggered glacial floods, the availability of water or sunlight, etc. One of the jobs that I think we have as faculty is to provide students with opportunities that will lead them beyond their comfort zone, where people learn or discover new ideas and connections they didn’t have before. That widened skill- or knowledge-set enables people to go even further with a topic the next time.
In thinking about how to configure my Spring 2013 HONR 1206 class, “The Impact of Environmental Cycles: Earth, Air, Fire, and Water,” I knew that I wanted to use Berner & Berner’s Global Environment: Water, Air, and Geochemical Cycles, in part because, like the Iceland trips, it’s a “book about everything” – at least as far as thinking about what scientists currently know about cycling of compounds like CO2 among the wide array of different reservoirs where CO2 is an important component (atmosphere, seawater, biomass, fossil fuels, rocks and minerals, etc.), across both recent and more distant geologic timescales. Understanding how the concentrations of compounds like CO2 in the atmosphere vary, what processes add and subtract them, and the often surprising environmental impacts that a change in one reservoir can have on a different part of the cycle is both challenging and fun.
In my Fall 2012 HONR 1206 class, the students and I jointly worked out which topics we would focus on after a couple of weeks of ‘global’ learning to set the stage for informed decisions. I thought that approach worked well, and the Spring 2013 course, though on different topics, will lend itself to that sort of input, also.
We’ll spend the first week and a half exploring four linked environmental cycles that strongly impact daily life at the earth’s surface: the global water cycle; the energy cycle, driven by sunlight; and circulation of the atmosphere and ocean currents. After that, we’ll consider atmosphere chemistry, studying in more detail some of the processes that we outlined in the introductory discussion, leading to a better understanding of the environmental impact.
We will use the textbook as the primary reference for the course, but I’ll also have students read some primary research literature so they can see how scientific research papers are constructed and how to read and interpret them. And, of course for a Spring semester class, as the weather improves it is likely that we’ll need to take everyone outside at least once to experience the interactions between earth, atmosphere, etc. in the world beyond the classroom walls.