COOL CLASSES: “Case Studies in Environmental Issues: Concepts, Contexts, and Conundrums”

This introductory course in environmental studies is team taught by faculty from different disciplines and uses case studies as the basis for its exploration of contemporary and historical environmental issues.

Class name: “Case Studies in Environmental Issues: Concepts, Contexts, and Conundrums”

Taught by: Assistant Professor of Biology Jonathan Wilson and Visiting Assistant Professor of Economics and Postdoctoral Fellow Steven Smith

Here’s what Wilson had to say about the class:

This introduction to environmental studies course is a team-taught, multidisciplinary, case-studies-based introduction to contemporary and historical environmental issues. The study of the environment is larger than any one class—or faculty member’s expertise—so we’ve designed the course to study a small number of case studies each year from the perspective of two faculty members in different disciplines: ideally, a scientist and someone from the social sciences, humanities, or arts. The goal of the class is to model interdisciplinary investigation and dialogue addressing key environmental issues, from groundwater pollution in Toms River, N.J., to the “global commons” challenge of anthropogenic climate change, and explore how different disciplines construct and address these case studies from a number of perspectives—ethical, scientific, economic, and social.

One of our major goals for the course is for students to appreciate multiple perspectives on a problem. To achieve that goal, we have a very broad reading list: this year, it extends from economics and scientific papers to the novel Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner and the 1970s science fiction film Soylent Green. We spend time, as a group, reading and discussing difficult readings in order to demystify them and create an interdisciplinary dialogue. The course moves quickly and it sometimes feels like a tasting menu for ways to study the environment.

This class was created as the gateway to the Environmental Studies minor, and I’ve taught it in some fashion nearly every year since 2011. I enjoy the opportunity to co-teach with other faculty members, particularly colleagues in the social sciences. During their lectures, I learn more about anthropology or economics than I could on my own, and I am always excited to learn about my colleagues’ research. Teaching with a colleague like Steven and to an interdisciplinary class of students—from future scientists to humanists—is a pleasure. I find that I learn as much as anyone and it feeds into the next iteration of the course.


Says Smith:

Our class introduces students to the field of environmental studies, both the issues and disciplines that make up the field. Because we cannot cover all the topics, we focus on a few cases (food, water, and energy) and we intend to provide students with the tools and base knowledge to allow them to analyze, debate, and ultimately work to address the pressing environmental issues. These are complex and require dialogue from across many disciplines, and we hope they will learn how to be a part of that discussion.

The course allows me to extend beyond my economic discipline and consider environmental issues more broadly, improving my own understanding of the issues. The opportunity to co-teach is also unique. Working with Jon Wilson, a biologist, means we have an opportunity to design a unique dialogue to approach environmental studies. In addition, I get to learn from him, not only material but also approaches to teaching.


Photo: Frank J. Aleksandrowicz/NARA

See what other courses the Environmental Studies Department offers.

Cool Classes is a series that highlights interesting, unusual, and unique courses that enrich the Haverford experience.