Science & Tech

Harvard brings the Earth to high school

5 min read

Free environmental science course for teachers unveiled

Steam vents in Yellowstone National Park are part of the area’s unique environment, seen in a case study exploring Yellowstone and the reintroduction of wolves into the park. This case study is part of a new environmental science course for high school science teachers.

Harvard scientists and media specialists unveiled an online environmental science course Monday (Oct. 1) aimed at high school teachers and, through them, high school students — the future inheritors of the Earth’s environmental problems.

The course, called “The Habitable Planet: A Systems Approach to Environmental Science,” features a scientific “dream team” of experts from Harvard and elsewhere who describe their fields, relevant problems, and potential solutions in a series of online videos. The videos accompany scientists into the field as they do their work and include specific case studies. They include an online textbook and a series of interactive labs illustrating specific concepts.

The package was developed by the Harvard University Center for the Environment (HUCE) and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA). It will be available for free on the Web site of Annenberg Media, which funded the endeavor.

“The goal here is to have as many teachers use this as possible,” said Alex Griswold, executive producer in the CfA’s Science Education Department and a member of the CfA’s Science Media Group, which handled the project’s production.

Center for the Environment Director Daniel Schrag, professor of Earth and planetary sciences and professor of environmental science and engineering, called Monday’s unveiling a “real celebration” and thanked all those involved with the course’s production.

Schrag, the chief content developer, said he had once been interested in creating a new high school science textbook, but was told that differing state-by-state standards and political influence in the process would make it not worthwhile. So when he was approached about a project aimed at science teachers, he jumped at the chance.

“The Annenberg program was different. It was to give the materials to the teachers and let them decide what to do with it,” Schrag said.

Massachusetts Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Ian Bowles attended the unveiling. He reflected that the pond on which he used to play hockey as a child no longer freezes over and said that there is a need to innovate and change how business as usual is conducted.

“We all understand that our energy future has to be different from our energy past,” Bowles said.

Bowles said Massachusetts has the opportunity to be a leader in changing how energy is used, and Harvard can play an important role in that. He cited Harvard’s recent commitment to cap the amount of greenhouse gases generated by its future construction in Allston as an important and unprecedented development.

“I think that project may make history over time. It already has,” Bowles said.

Michele McLeod, who managed the project for Annenberg, said they’ve been congratulated on timing its release to coincide with a new national environmental awareness. These problems have been around for years, however, McLeod said, and the scientists involved realize it’s not just a new fad.

“This represents the collected knowledge of a number of talented and dedicated scientists,” McLeod said. “That’s what this course is about: what is known and what is yet to be discovered.”

The course, which involved more than 40 leading scientists from a host of institutions, features 13 different units. The first four talk about life on Earth, highlighting the connections between all things. The next eight units discuss human impacts on the planet, from population dynamics to agriculture, from water use to energy, from biodiversity to the climate. The final chapter looks at the future.

The course is primarily designed for teacher professional development and includes a guide for those interested in taking it for graduate credit. But developers said it was designed with enough flexibility that units could be viewed in any order. Some materials, in addition, could be used in high school classes.

Alexander Agassiz Professor of Biological Oceanography James McCarthy, who worked on the project, said that when Schrag first approached Harvard faculty members, they immediately became excited at the idea. A suite of environmental problems have become better understood in the lifetimes of today’s high school students, he said, and it is important they understand them.

While course developers said the goal is to reach as many teachers as possible, an important secondary audience may wind up being nonteachers who want to learn more, Griswold said.

During the course of their work, the developers who worked with the scientists learned a lot about the Earth’s problems. They also learned that, though the problems are severe, something can still be done.

“There’s still a chance. No matter how dire things seem, human beings have the ability to work together to make a difference,” Griswold said.