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Innovative course seeks to spark University-wide conversation

The University is no stranger to ambitious, team-taught interdisciplinary courses: both the popular Humanities Sequence (HUM 216-219) and the Integrated Science Curriculum (ISC) offer unique perspectives on course material that spans a wide variety of academic subject areas. However, after looking at these models, Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Steven Pacala realized that he would have to throw out the rulebook in designing the unprecedented new course of which he is the head, ENV 200: The Environmental Nexus.

Pacala, a professor in the environmental sciences at Princeton for 25 years, first began to develop the course in 2015, a task he felt was an “important responsibility” given the influence of environmental issues on both contemporary and projected global affairs.

The word “Nexus” in the course’s title refers to four “unprecedented” global problems caused by environmental changes, which Pacala says will “come together at a point in mid-century, when ... students of today are at the peak of responsibility and power." These four problems are climate change, biodiversity loss, and food and water scarcity in a world whose population will top nine billion by mid-century.

Pacala describes the course as being designed for all students, even those not interested in pursuing environmental science as a career. They will be taught “not to be professionals, but to be responsible citizens,” he said. Pacala added that the interdisciplinary aspect of the course does not just cater to “busy students” looking to fill a distribution requirement, but is actually essential to understanding the “environmental nexus” in its entirety, which must be explored through many fields, from ethics to science to literature.

One of ENV 200’s most notable features is that, unlike other courses which provide the same interdisciplinary experience to all students, different precepts will offer different perspectives on the problems addressed in the class, offering opportunities to fulfill STL, STN, LA, SA, EM, and QR distribution requirements. Pacala attributes this fact to the high enrollment of the class — 255 students as of this article — but maintains that the size and scope of the class will not diminish the quality of teaching students will receive.

On the contrary, an essential part of the course’s development was recruiting a team of climate science “rock stars” to teach it. Melissa Lane, politics professor and director of the University Center for Student Values, Robert Nixon, an English professor affiliated with the Princeton Environmental Institute, and economics professor Marc Fleurbaey, also affiliated with the University Center for Student Values, are set to teach the course alongside Pacala. Lane, who had previously worked with the other three lecturers on several projects related to the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies (PIIRS) which began in 2003, stated that the four already “enjoy a deep reservoir of collaboration and conversation as colleagues.”

They will also be joined by guest “luminaries” in the field of climate science and policy. Precepts will be taught by one of the four lecturers, part- and full-time professors in various departments, or grad students specifically chosen for their teaching ability.

Pacala describes himself as someone that “enjoys teaching,” and is particularly excited about the signature pedagogical style of the class, which combines traditional and more innovative teaching practices. According to Pacala, Mondays and Wednesdays will be devoted to traditional lectures which will relate to common readings and cover material relating to every subject area of the course. Friday lectures will be more nonstandard, featuring “clicker” questions and lectures or question-and-answer sessions with guest speakers. Precepts will vary widely depending on the “track” of the course; LA-track students will read literature and watch films exploring issues of the “environmental nexus,” QR-track students will learn how mathematical models are used to calculate the impact of climate issues on global conflict (so-called “high-end” political science), while STL students will experience a more traditional climate science lab.

However, despite these differences in approach, much of the content learned is the same; according to Pacala, many precepts will explore the same readings through different “lenses,” and approximately 2/3 of the course’s exams will not vary between “tracks.”

The idea of a course accessible to all University students which reaches across disciplinary lines is not new; Pacala recounts a discussion with President Eisgruber in which he was told about a once-mandatory course for senior students “which was basically the [University] president telling the young men how to be a good person.” He sees ENV 200 as a modern update to this idea of a general education course designed to generate discussion from all academic areas on campus. While Pacala says that “there is nothing [like ENV 200] nationally,” he expects that interdisciplinary courses like it, centered around important societal issues, may become more common at the University in coming years.

Marc Fleurbaey, who heads the course’s SA track and will also lecture on economics, also remarked on the need for a course like ENV 200 in an email statement, stating that as “environmental crises are becoming more and more alarming ... the fact that the course brings several disciplines together is important because problems of this scale cannot be treated within the confines of only one discipline.”

In the run-up to the course, Pacala and the other lecturers have been “pleased” with the enthusiastic response. Lane in particular was surprised to find that her EM track was the first to fill, and indeed remained the only filled track at the end of course sign-ups. Pacala, who, despite his self-described “street cred” in environmental science and technology did extensive research on the connection between climate change and conflict in preparation for the course, described himself as “just as curious” as his students, ready to face the “enormous [pedagogical] challenge” that ENV 200 will pose. As for whether other universities will adopt similar programs, Pacala is unsure. “I get a lot of emails,” he said.