Science, politics and the relationships between humans and nature take center stage in a number of first-year seminars this semester — from the impacts of consumerism on habitats and communities, to climate change data and denial, to the significance of water and whales on human history and the pursuit of power.
Individual choices shape global outcomes.
“Sustainable Living and Learning” — taught by Professors Beth Kinne and Tom Drennen — challenges first-year students to explore the complex relationship between sustainability and consumption, with a particular focus on the ways individual choices shape global outcomes.
In an ongoing project at the heart of the course, students research the footprint of objects in their everyday lives — T-shirts, water bottles, toilet paper, hockey sticks — to determine whether they are socially, economically and environmentally sustainable.
“It’s been really interesting to see the nuances of worldwide impact of an object you may overlook,” says Matt Nusom ’23, who is researching plastic straws. While cost effective for the companies that produce them, straws “are not socially or environmentally sustainable. The good thing is, there’s lots of alternatives,” Nusom says.
The seminar is structured as a Learning Community, with students taking some of the same courses, attending some of the same lectures and field trips, and living in the same residence hall. These living and learning environments focus on shared, active learning, linking academic and out-of-class experiences and developing strong bonds with faculty and fellow students.
“We strive to build a real community,” says Drennen, a professor of economics and chair of the entrepreneurial studies program. “The students all live together in Rees Hall and we built classrooms and a kitchen in the residence hall. Having the professors go into the residence hall makes this a unique experience for all.”
In addition to small group discussions, “Sustainable Living and Learning” includes a three-hour common lab time that allows the two sections to go on field trips. As Nusom notes, this provides “so many opportunities to go out and experience firsthand what we’re learning about” — from fracking sites in Pennsylvania to apple orchards at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station to a Finger Lakes water treatment plant.
“It’s fantastic that we all have a common topic,” he says of the Learning Community. “It’s very supportive, and especially in the beginning few days, it really tied us together.”
As part of the Learning Community, students are also enrolled in an introductory environmental studies course in the spring semester taught by Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Whitney Mauer. In that course, “Campus Sustainability,” the students will seek solutions to environmental concerns on campus.
In the seminar “Climate Change: Science and Politics,” students are dual enrolled in “Introduction to Meteorology,” exploring the broad scope of atmospheric science as they delve into the ways it “can be misconstrued in the political realm,” says Associate Professor of Geoscience Nick Metz.
Why does climate science skepticism persist?
“Climate Change is one of the best examples of a place where near scientific consensus can fall apart in the political realm,” Metz says. “I want the students to be able to differentiate between absolute fact (seeing the whole picture along with the complexities) versus political fact which often includes cherry-picking the data to support one’s preconceived opinion.”
Sydney Schultz ’23, who says she grew up steeped in politics, says the course offers an interesting window into “how much overlap there can be between several areas of study” and why climate science skepticism persists in the face of “just how much information and data there is out there.”
With “many ways to manipulate and skew data,” Calvin Klube ’23 says the course underscores how research “must be analyzed both holistically and individually when approaching an immense issue such as climate change,” especially for policy decisions.
The relationship between humans and the natural world is also the subject of Associate Professor of History Matt Crow’s seminar, “Whales and Dolphins.”
From the importance of whales as symbols of indigenous cultures, to their role in modern economic history, to the study of nonhuman culture and intelligence, the seminar asks students to consider the implications of acknowledging whales as having language and culture, and what that reveals about humanity.
Crow says the seminar was inspired by his own scholarship “on the writing of Herman Melville and how it reflected changes taking place in how law and empire shaped the way the United States encountered global cultures.
Tackling “broad existential questions [like] ‘who owns the ocean,’” Kate Clayton ’23 says the seminar has been a valuable opportunity “to learn about how our perceptions of the ocean and the creatures that inhabit it have changed over time…We don’t just learn about whales — rather we use them as a case study to assess the history of human interactions with the ocean.”
Who owns the ocean?
Meanwhile, students in “Politics, Inequality & Climate Change,” taught by Professor of Political Science Paul Passavant, explore what climate change means for the world and the United States, and how it interacts with social and economic inequities. In Associate Professor of Geoscience Tara Curtin’s seminar, “Parched: Past, Present, Future of Water,” students develop tools to understand how the environment naturally produces safe, clean drinking water; how humans obtain and use these water resources; water quality and water pollution; water treatment processes; energy generation; and how humans can sustain water resources in perpetuity.
Learn more about other First-Year Seminars that explore the environment and human activity, as well as dozens of others with a range of themes.