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“In order to do sustainability right, you first have to understand how natural environmental systems work,” explained Ryan Sullivan, a professor of mechanical engineering and chemistry. His new course, “Environmental Systems on a Changing Planet,” offers students these fundamentals. The course, offered for the first time in fall 2020, welcomes students of all disciplines to dive into the fascinating connections between the oceans, atmosphere, continents, biology, ecosystems, and people that provide our planet with resources that all life depends on.

Unlike other environment-focused courses currently offered through the College of Engineering, Environmental Systems on a Changing Planet focuses more on understanding the function of natural environmental systems instead of engineered systems, and the foundational science and engineering concepts required to understand these complex and vital environmental systems. The course 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 three-unit course taken together with this course.

Although Environmental Systems on a Changing Planet serves as the required foundational science course for the new additional major and existing minor in Environmental and Sustainability Studies, it was designed to be accessible to all undergraduate students across the university who have an interest in environmental science and understanding current environmental and sustainability challenges.

Claire Chiang, a biological sciences major, didn’t get the chance to take general environmental courses in high school, so she was eager to enroll in the fall 2020 semester. “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,” she said.

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

Ryan Sullivan, Professor, Mechanical Engineering and Chemistry

Sullivan’s goal was to make the class interactive. “In order to understand the importance and wonder of environmental science, students need to experience it,” he pointed out.  In the fall of 2020, he intended to take students on fieldtrips to places like Phipps Conservatory and Biological 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 Our Planet (which Netflix made freely available on YouTube) before class so that during class discussions they could examine how the show brought the course concepts and environmental systems to life.

Nicklaus Smith, double majoring in social and political history and environmental and sustainability studies was able to tie the course material into both of 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.”

“I also loved the interdisciplinary nature of the course,” Smith went on to say. “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 in order to solve problems like climate change, endocrine disruption, and ecological collapse, we need a concerted effort of interdisciplinary thinkers to craft solutions.”

Sullivan plans to teach Environmental Systems on a Changing Planet each fall for years to come and to introduce in-person environmental field trips as soon as they are safe. He hopes that by creating an accessible introductory course in environmental science that students will be inspired to take further courses in the area, and to enroll in the minor or additional major in Environmental and Sustainability Studies that is facillitated by the Steinbrenner Institute for Environmental Education and Research.

Both Chiang and Smith would highly encourage students to enroll believing that the course offers a bit for everyone, “Environmental Systems on a Changing Planet is set to touch lightly upon multiple topics in environmental science with a huge focus on how students can also make an impact.”