GEO/ENV/STC/WRI 299: StudioLab: El Nino, Global Climate Changes and Earth’s Habitability

“A Call to Bridge Science, Storytelling, and Ethical Reflection…”

Spring 2017:  Thursday 1:30-4:20pm
CST StudioLab:  B08 Fine Hall

Astronomers estimate that our galaxy has billions of planets, but the only one currently known to be habitable is ours, planet Earth. In this course, students work in small teams at Princeton’s StudioLab (which includes 3-D printing and motion-capture technology) and the Geosciences oceanography lab, to build models and visualize a climate science explanation of how Earth’s habitability – the maintenance of conditions that favored the evolution of a glorious diversity of flora and fauna over a few billion years – depends on the continual recycling of water, oxygen, and carbon dioxide between four main reservoirs: the atmosphere, oceans, “solid” earth, and the biosphere. The recycling has a rhythm determined by sunlight variations that drive the seasonal cycle, which humans are changing by altering the composition of the atmosphere, raising ethical issues beyond the scope of science. With the goal of promoting responsible stewardship of the Earth, each team will document its research by scripting, storyboarding and producing a short science film that explains to non-scientists why ours is an exceptional planet, a habitable one.



This is a seminar in which you’ll learn about the theory of climate science outside classroom hours; in class, you will empirically train as storytellers in a studio setting, where the instructors will guide and advise you, but not lead you, into telling original and compelling science stories. The instructors will collaborate with you to help test a scientific argument and express critical thinking. With feedback from guest experts who work in journalism, comics, and film, the instructors will help you craft a research proposal, a narrative storyboard, a film script, and finally produce a twenty-minute short film about your exploration of the scientific method, and reflection of its strengths and weaknesses.


In this seminar you’ll be asked to be a science whisperer: your charge is to practice, live with, and dramatize the scientific method for a greater audience. Science is organized skepticism and demands of its congregation a firm commitment to the continual testing of all beliefs, a mode of learning that involves a ceaseless interplay between observations and theories.  Consider, as an opening gambit, the banal observation that summer is warmer than winter. Why? By subjecting this observation to a series of hypotheses and carefully planned tests, which in turn lead to more observations, more hypotheses, and more tests that transcend the limits of our everyday intuition… we arrive at a most surprising conclusion: the Earth is a living macro-body whose current bounty of life-sustaining conditions are at a precarious moment in its long, event-filled history. The Earth is a very precious home, the only viable one known to us. How do we become its responsible stewards?


This seminar will also challenge you to reckon with an ethical perspective, as tenants within a living, changing world. Soon we will have accurate information about future climate changes, but global warming will remain a polarizing issue because science is mute on ethical issues. What is the right balance between our responsibilities to future generations, and our obligations to those suffering today—those living in abject poverty, for example? To quote Galileo: science can tell us how the heavens go, but not how to go to heaven. To deal with global warming, we have to recognize the limitations of science, and have to act on the basis of what we, as humans, have in common…


* Images courtesy Kanate,; Brett Lamb,; The Strand Magazine; Hulton Archive/Getty Images.