Carnegie Mellon University
October 25, 2021

Course Makes Environmental Science Accessible to All Students

By Kaitlyn Landram

Kaitlyn Landram
  • College of Engineering

A new course at Carnegie Mellon University dives into the connections between the Earth's water, air, land and life.

Environmental Systems on a Changing Planet is taught by Ryan Sullivan, an associate professor of chemistry and mechanical engineering. He is also the associate director for the Institute for Green Science. First offered in the fall of 2020, the course is one of the required courses for CMU's new additional major in environmental and sustainability studies and is open to CMU students of all disciplines.

"In order to do sustainability right, you first have to understand how natural environmental systems work," Sullivan said.

"Environmental Systems on a Changing Planet" explores how solar and biochemical energy moves through the Earth's interconnected systems, recycling nutrients; how complex environmental systems function to produce critical resources such as food, water and materials; and how human activities interfere with and impair environmental systems in the Anthropocene geological epoch. Students that want to go into more technical science and engineering depth are invited to enroll in a supplementary 3-unit course taken together with this course.

Claire Chiang, a junior in biological sciences was not able to take general environmental courses in high school, so she enrolled the first time the course was offered.

"I really enjoyed talking about the chemistry side of environmental science. It was very interesting as a biologist to branch into chemistry and think about how chemicals I cannot see are so apparent in my daily life," Chiang said.

Sullivan's said his goal was to make the class super interactive.

"In order to understand the importance and wonder of environmental science, students need to experience it," he said. In 2020, he intended to take students on field trips to places such as the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens and the Frick Environmental Center, and tree planting along the Allegheny River as part of the Pittsburgh Redbud Project, but the pandemic forced the class to be taught entirely virtually. Sullivan improvised with individual self-guided student fieldtrips to locations each student selected and proposed. Students watched documentaries including the Netflix documentary "Our Planet" so that during class discussions they could examine how the show brought the course concepts and environmental systems to life.

Nicklaus Smith, a senior who is majoring in social and political history and planning to complete an additional major in environmental and sustainability studies, said the course tied into his academic pursuits.

"My research areas are in fracking policy, air pollution and environmental justice issues, so I knew the class would be incredibly supplementary," Smith said. "I also loved the interdisciplinary nature of the course. I believe it is one of the most essential ways of learning because of the different backgrounds that can work in tandem to create a holistic learning experience for everyone involved. Environmental issues often exist as a crisis discipline nowadays, so to solve problems like climate change, endocrine disruption and ecological collapse, we need a concerted effort of interdisciplinary thinkers to craft solutions."

— Related Content —