Case Study: Course Collaboration

ENV201: Introduction to Environmental Studies: Population, Land Use, Biodiversity, and Energy

An expanding human population and the desire of all people for a more prosperous life have placed tremendous demands on the environment. We will explore how human activities have affected land use, agriculture, fisheries, biodiversity, and the use of energy. Our focus is both global and local, highlighting not only fundamental changes in the biosphere, but also the ways in which individual decisions lead to major environmental changes. We explore the fundamental principles underlying contemporary environmental issues, and we use case studies to illustrate the scientific, political, economic, and social dimensions of environmental problems.

Inspired by (link is external)

The collaboration with CST focused on 4 goals: (1) revise and enhance course-wide conceptual frameworks, (2) articulate and advance critical course goals, (3) refocus STEM-based learning objectives, and (4) improve the multi-disciplinary instructional mechanics of ENV 201A/B.

Specific changes in collaboration with CST have included:

  1. Experimentation with more in-class questions, discussions, and activities, such as debating organic versus conventional agriculture based on a Stanford University study and exploring global environmental data using Google Public Data Viewer ( (link is external));
  2. Development of a new precept activities based on the questions: what are the important concepts this week, what concepts will they struggle with and therefore need more time to digest, and what specific data can we have them examine that will help them deal with the concepts in a rigorous way and that they can use to demonstrate deep understanding; data have included campus-specific data on energy consumption (see the energy project description), personal data from their lives (e.g., descriptions of their diets from the few days before precept), data collected in a whole-class tragedy-of-the-commons game, and data sets from homework readings;
  3. Development and assignment of two new precept projects, with the students looking at energy usage on Princeton’s campus and dietary choices of conventional versus organic versions of specific food items;
  4. Creation of two mid-semester evaluations for students to provide feedback on the two halves of the course; and
  5. Creation of a survey of the class to reflect on how this course has impacted their optimism about our ability to solve environmental issues discussed in the course.

CST teaching specialist Catherine Riihimaki also developed and taught a full semester of new lab exercises, with a particular emphasis on modeling and computation, two topics of critical importance in topics discussed in lecture but previously ignored in lab.

Lessons learned:
Since the reframing of the course, student evaluations have improved, particularly for the ENV201B students, engagement in course topics has increased, and the instructors are quite enthusiastic about further revisions to the course. Teaching by a large team of instructors remains a challenge, because the implementation of a coherent course requires communication early and often.

Ideas for the future:
In fall 2015, enhanced mentorship of the preceptors will be piloted to ensure that the precepts and assessments are equitable across the course and to deliberately help the graduate student preceptors improve their teaching skills. Course topics, readings, and assignments continue to be refined, with an overhaul expected in fall 2016 with changes to the teaching staff.

About the teaching team:

Dr. Kelly Caylor is a civil engineer with research interests in ecohydrology, particularly of dryland regions. He is Associate Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and directs the Environmental Studies program through the Princeton Environmental Institute.

Dr. David Wilcove is an ecologist and public policy expert with research interests in conservation of biodiversity. Prior to coming to Princeton in 2001, he worked for the Environmental Defense Fund, the Wilderness Society, and the Nature Conservancy. He is Professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

Dr. Catherine Riihimaki is Associate Director of Science Education for the Council on Science and Technology. She is a geoscientist with interests in the impacts of climate change on watershed dynamics, and an expert in STEM education with interests in broadening and deepening engagement and literacy in science and engineering.