Course Goal for Mathematics for Sustainability

John Roe posted the following excellent description of the course goal for Math 33 in his welcome for the Fall 2015 semester.  I am reprinting his description in its entirety.  As noted by a student in today’s class, the course format does borrow from Andrew Read’s course, Science in Our World .

— Russ deForest

Welcome to Math 033- Mathematics for Sustainability. This is a new course at Penn State which was taught for the first time in the spring of 2015. Its goal is:  through a General Education Mathematics course, to enable students to develop the quantitative and qualitative skills needed to reason effectively about environmental and economic sustainability.  That’s a lot of long words!   Let me unpack a bit:

  • General Education Mathematics At most universities (including PSU), every student, whatever their major, has to take one or two “quantitative” courses – this is called the “general education” requirement.  I want to reach out to students who are not planning to be mathematicians or scientists, students for whom this may be the last math course they ever take.  Let’s make it a memorable one!
  • quantitative and qualitative skills I want you to be able to work with numbers (“quantitative”) – to be able to get a feeling for scale and size, whether we’re talking about gigatonnes of carbon dioxide, kilowatts of domestic power, or picograms of radioisotopes.  But I also want you to get an intuition for the behavior of systems (qualitative), so that the ideas of growth, feedback, oscillation, and tipping points become part of your conceptual vocabulary.
  • to reason effectively A transition to a more sustainable society won’t come about without robust public debate – I want to help you engage effectively in this debate. Shamelessly stealing ideas from Andrew Read’s Science in Our World course, I hope to do this by using an online platform for student presentations. Engaging with this process (which includes commenting on other people’s presentations as well as devising your own) will count seriously in the grading scheme.
  • environmental and economic sustainability I’d like you to get the idea that there are lots of scales on which one can ask the sustainability question – both time scales (how many years is “sustainable”) and spatial scales.  We’ll think about global-scale questions (carbon dioxide emissions being an obvious example) but we’ll also try to look at local-scale examples (a single building, the Penn State campus, local agriculture) which give us a chance to engage more directly.

John Roe

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