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Welcome to our newest Science Department course offering: Advanced Placement Environmental Science

Friday, April 20, 2018
AP environmental science students doing a soil lab
AP environmental science students doing a soil lab

Over the last decade, Environmental Science and Environmental Studies have been cited among the fastest growing majors in STEM programs at the undergraduate level. In a world with increasing environmental and health concerns, this is hardly a surprising revelation. I’m pleased to say that the Waterford School is now offering our Juniors and Seniors a robust Advanced Placement class in this important field.

Prior to joining Waterford in 2001, I worked as the Academic Dean for The School for Field Studies. Before that I served as a Professor of Oceanography for a study abroad program called the Sea Education Association. The fields of ecology and oceanography are, by their nature, highly interdisciplinary and I have always found myself most drawn to the edges and intersections of different scientific disciplines. I am delighted to bring that interest into my classroom in a more formal way.

There’s an old joke among professional scientists with a punchline claiming that anything that has the word “science” in it, probably isn’t a science. Political Science, Social Science, Creation Science and so on… So what are we to make of our newest offering, AP Environmental Science?

One could argue that Environmental Science isn’t so much a “pure” science as an application of science – a great many sciences in fact. Our “traditional” AP science fields like Chemistry, Physics and Biology (a class I also teach) are based in fundamental principles and experimental data stretching back hundreds of years. However, in the manner that engineering can be seen as applied physics, or medicine as applied biology, the field of environmental science is very much an applied science. Environmental scientists take a strong working knowledge in a wide diversity of fields in their attempt to understand and hopefully mitigate the complex interworking of environmental issues. This year, my students and I have delved into a wide range of scientific disciplines including (but in no way limited to) hydrology, atmospheric circulation, ecosystem dynamics, microbiology, geology, and aquatic chemistry.

Consider a single environmental problem like nutrient runoff from agricultural fields, for example. This sort of water pollution requires the student to understand a diversity of scientific topics including surface and subsurface water flow, nutrient uptake by aquatic and marine algae, watershed dynamics and global meteorological patterns affecting seasonal flooding. These are all topics we have discussed over the course of our year together. Additionally (and perhaps uniquely in the AP Sciences) we also need to consider purely human issues such as economics (the cost of controlling runoff), politics (the laws affecting agricultural concerns) and sociology (cultural issues surrounding stream and river protections). The intersection of such a myriad of multi-dimensional issues and interdisciplinary connections makes for fascinating classroom conversations.

It is my hope that students in this course will walk away with a small appreciation for the complexity of environmental systems and the challenges we face applying our growing knowledge to safeguard their robust functioning.