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The liberal sciences: a core curriculum for a green future


THE TRADITIONAL IDEAL of a liberal arts education was put forth by A. Bartlett Giamatti, the late president of Yale and commissioner of baseball:

In the fundamental acts of thinking and expression, the fundamental human parts of ourselves are initially shaped and then shared, and that shaping and sharing starts in what we call a liberal education, an education in the making of those orders whence freedom derives and by which it is defended. (Yale commencement address, 1985)

This is the principle that underlies the core curriculum at Columbia and many other institutions. It is a belief that by encouraging a love of learning for its own sake, the university will serve democracy by creating a citizenry that can discern right from wrong and refuses to accept tyranny (even in major league baseball). The shapers of this ideal were concerned mostly with rules and standards of human interaction, with relatively little thought given to interaction with the rest of nature. Rightly or wrongly, for most of the history of Western civilization, educated ethical guidance was principally applied to human-human dealings.

Only recently have we begun to comprehend that human activity is a force of nature in its own right, with profound effects on the ability of the Earth to support humans and other species. It is therefore increasingly important that an educated person know how the physical world works. The relatively minor role of science courses in most liberal arts curricula is not adequate to prepare students for the decisions they will need to make, such as how to evaluate the environmental costs and benefits of various fuel sources, waste-disposal strategies, or agricultural practices. Science, like ballet or pitching, is commonly reserved for the highly talented few; not everyone needs to be able to complete a triple pirouette or deliver a knuckleball. However, unless basic environmental science is made accessible to most students, it is subject to innocent or deliberate misinterpretation by policy-makers. In adherence with the ideal of the liberal education, an informed global citizenry is necessary to ensure that the best interests of the planet are served.

This is the philosophy behind the Earth Semester at Biosphere 2 Center, an undergraduate program that attempts to rebalance the core of a liberal education and to promote interdisciplinary thinking. In the initial session, starting September 1996, a geologist, a biologist, and a social scientist will teach courses organized around the environmental challenges posed by climate change and its potential effects on water and air quality, biodiversity, agricultural production, and public health.

Students will work in the often-ignored border areas among the physical, biological, and human sciences. For example, they will study the chemistry and physics of global warming, experiment with the effects of higher carbon dioxide on plants, then engage in policy negotiations about the subject. "In one semester we hope to change the 'spin orientation' of the students so that they come away with a new understanding of their role as environmental actors," says Michael Molitor, an assistant professor in the program. Students also will participate in research to learn firsthand how science is done. "We hope to demystify the scientific process and train them to think critically about science," says assistant professor Ann Holmes.

Bridging the education-opinion-action gap

ONE FUNDAMENTAL QUESTION Earth Semester students will consider is the dramatic difference between public opinion on environmental problems and public action. Awareness of so-called "global" environmental issues such as climate change has risen dramatically in the past 25 years. In opinion polls, the environment consistently ranks among the issues of greatest concern to the American people, and general awareness of such problems has become widespread. However, given this fairly widespread knowledge that humans are perturbing a complex planetary life support system, it seems odd that the American public does not seem to be galvanized at a level commensurate with the potential risks. This relative apathy is reflected not only in a low demand for proactive climate policies (or at least a powerlessness to effect the necessary political changes), but also in the apparent lack of attention to the effect of individual actions in influencing global systems. Why is it that even those who are literate in environmental issues do not seem motivated to change their lifestyles?

One intriguing possibility is that the climate problem (as well as other environmental issues that occur over large spatial and temporal scales, such as population growth) differs fundamentally from the kinds of environmental pressures that humans have typically adapted to over evolutionary time.

Environmental risk and human response: an evolutionary perspective

DURING THE LENGTHY period when Homo sapiens developed its unique evolutionary trait, the mind, the species became "hard-wired" to deal with environmental threats that occurred over scales of time ranging from seconds to a lifetime and a half (until offspring reach sexual maturity) and spatial scales at the level of the village or ecosystem. Of central concern to hunter-gatherers and early practitioners of agriculture were seasonal- to decadal-scale climate fluctuations, changes in populations of fish and game, and changing abundances of plants for food, shelter, clothing, and materials (in addition to more immediate threats to health and safety, such as floods, disease, and attacks from predators).

Our intellectual faculties responded to those pressures by adapting to and manipulating the environment. Over time, our success in manipulating the environment eased the dominance of environmental pressures, enabling cultural evolution and technological innovation to accelerate. However, this development--aggregated over the globe in the form of huge population centers, planetary flows of information and materials, and releases of waste products into the atmosphere and ocean--have fundamentally altered the evolutionary context within which humans exist. Now the deepest threats from the environment to long-term human survival lie in large-scale perturbations to the planet's interwoven life support systems. In an ironic twist of evolutionary fate, the traits that have made us so successful in escaping the environmental constraints that shackle other species have generated a new set of constraints and challenges, for which our old survival instincts may not be fully prepared.

Within this context, one might pose the following question: Can our intellectual understanding of this fundamental change propel the necessary "evolutionary" adaptations to ensure long-term survival?

Education on a systemic scale

THE CHALLENGES FOR those of us who would educate students about the Earth lies in trying to hard-wire the connections between students' intellectual recognition of their influence on global systems and the survival mechanisms that lead to choices about their behavior. The educational potential of the Biosphere 2 facility stems from a meshing of natural and human-made elements, which combine to give rise to the unique behavior of the Bio2 system. The closed nature of the system makes it both a potent metaphor for Earth and a unique teaching tool (see Table 1). Bio2 makes global-scale processes (such as the biogeochemical cycling of greenhouse gases) more tangible because of the differences between the facility and the Earth.

Table 1: Comparison of Earth and Biosphere 2(1)
EarthBiosphere 2
Percent of surface area that is ocean71%15%
Maximum depth of ocean11 km7.6 m
Max. height of atmosphere above land surface 17 km (top of troposphere)23 m
Ratio of biomass carbon to atmospheric carbon1:19:1
Residence time for atmospheric C8-10 years2-4 days
UV radiationSome at surface of EarthNone: filtered out by glass
Species densityRelatively low diversity/unit area3,000 species/1.28 ha

Bio2 has a low buffering capacity, a result of the small size of its ocean and atmosphere relative to land area. As a result, the time lag between environmental change and ecosystem response is diminished, making Bio2 an ideal lab for studying Earth systems. As part of the Earth Semester, students will make ecosystem management decisions and observe how the impact of their decisions ripples through the system. "The Earth is a closed system too; our resources are limited, and our waste products stay with us," says Elizabeth Snarr, a student at Bio2 this past summer. The tangible nature of these "global-scale" processes provides more than intellectually interesting but impractical experiments. The success of Bio2's research agenda depends on our ability to understand and control the processes of the system so that we may perform experiments under carefully controlled environmental conditions.

Bio2 and the Earth Semester are testbeds not only for answering questions about the processes that control our own planet, but also for developing responsible planetary citizens. The new "green curriculum" may eventually be adopted by colleges around the world, perhaps finally giving one possible answer to the student's age-old query: "Why do I need to learn this?" The answer, "To ensure a sustainable future for the inhabitants of the Earth," may provide students the motivation to use the resources of Bio2 and the universities to which they return and to continue learning throughout their lives. It is ultimately the same purpose for which the traditional core of a liberal education was created.

  1. Petersen J, Haberstock AE, Siccama TG, et al. The making of Biosphere 2. Rest. Management Notes 10.2 (1992): 158-68.

DEBRA COLODNER, Ph.D., is director of education and academic affairs, and JOSHUA TOSTESON is curriculum coordinator, both at Biosphere 2.

PHOTO CREDITS: David Mayhew / © 1996 Biosphere 2 Center.

If you build it, they will come:
public education at Bio2

THOUGH MOST RESEARCH labs are insulated from the public, Biosphere 2 opened its doors to visitors in 1991. Recognizing that this unique facility offers the opportunity to build on popular fascination while increasing people's understanding of science, Columbia's operation of Bio2 explicitly includes public education in its mission.

Some visitors explore Bio2 on their own; one member of a "green" commune in Denmark, for example, arranged to meet Bio2 scientists and discuss the logistics of growing food and recycling waste in a self-sufficient community. Other tourists, school children, and university or business groups receive guided tours through the complex. Programs such as Earth Exploration Weeks offer lectures, hands-on experience with labwork or computer simulations, and field trips to other sites of interest. The first such week, in October, will take a group of Japanese senior citizens to Arcosanti, an experimental village in northern Arizona.

To Wallace Broecker, Bio2's chief science adviser, these programs provide "the 'aha' experience" that can communicate the excitement of the research life. "Our science has become so complex and abstract that we are gradually losing touch with the public," says Broecker. "If Congress is to be convinced that our funding should be maintained, and if we are to attract bright young people to further our quest, we must reverse this trend. Biosphere 2 offers a wonderful setting to excite visitors about the science of the environment. We plan to exploit this great opportunity." --Stephanie Pfirman

STEPHANIE PFIRMAN is chairwoman of environmental science at Barnard College and adjunct associate research scientist at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.
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