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Environmental Science Syllabus

Environmental Science

Primary textbook: Environmental Science. by Michael R. Heithaus and Karen Arms. Originally published by Holt, Rinehart and Winston, now by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Workbook “Environmental Science Active Reading Worksheets.”

Environmental science is an interdisciplinary field. It integrates physical, biological and information sciences.  It covers the intersection of many fields: ecology, biology, physics, chemistry, plant science, zoology, mineralogy, oceanography, soil science, physical geography, and atmospheric science.

On a college level it incorporates social sciences for understanding human perceptions, which held design effective environmental policies.

Environmental scientists work on subjects like alternative energy systems, pollution control and mitigation, natural resource management, and the effects of global climate change.

Terminology: In common usage, “environmental science” and “ecology” are often used interchangeably. However, technically, ecology refers only to the study of organisms, and their interactions with each other and their environment. In this sense ecology is a subset of environmental science. (Ecology is also a subset of biology.)


       Weekly guide to what we’re doing in class

Lichens and mosses

What are lichens and mosses? Many people speak about them together, as if they are related. But this turns out not to be correct – they are entirely different forms of life.


I. Lichen

A colony of two organisms living together as a single unit.

One is a fungus, and the other is something that performs photosynthesis

Either green algae or a photosynthetic bacterium, cyanobacteria.

Structure of a lichen

from Miller and Levine Biology, Chap 21, MaCaw

Two organisms living together in a close relationship is called symbiosis.

How do these two different species help each other?

The green algae or cyanobacteria carry out photosynthesis. This provides the fungus with food.

The fungus provides the green algae or cyanobacteria with water and minerals.

The fungal hyphae protect the delicate green cells from bright sunlight.

Lichens can grow in places where few other organisms can survive.

Even on rocks in desert and on mountaintops.

Lichens are often the first organisms to enter barren environments. They gradually break down the rocks on which they grow. In this way lichens help in the early stages of soil formation.

Lichens are very sensitive to air pollution. They are among the first organisms affected when air quality gets worse

Some colonies of lichens have existed for 9,000 years.


II. Moss

A very simple type of plant.


This image by Bob Blaylock, Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 4.0

Image: A patch of moss showing both gametophytes (the low, leaf-like forms) and sporophytes (the tall, stalk-like forms)

Mosses are small flowerless plants.

They  form dense green clumps or mats, often in damp or shady locations.

The individual plants are usually composed of simple leaves that are generally only one cell thick.

These are attached to a stem that may be branched or unbranched and has only a limited role in conducting water and nutrients.

Role of mosses in the ecosystem

Ramon Simpson explains

Mosses are extremely important for ecological succession.

They stabilize the soil surface, reducing erosion, reducing evaporation of water, making more available for succeeding plants.

Mosses are not an important source of food for vertebrate herbivores.

Peat mosses are the dominant plants of extensive northern wetland areas, and are largely responsible for the development of bogs.

Most species of mosses are not of any direct economic importance, and none are a food source for humans.

Peat mosses are economically the most important mosses. Peat mosses are an important source of fuel in some countries. Peat is abundant in northern regions and represents a vast reservoir of potential energy. In northern Europe, peat has historically been dried, and in some cases compressed into briquettes for use in fireplaces and stoves. In Ireland, peat is still extensively used for cooking.

In recent years, mosses have become important in monitoring the health of ecosystems, especially in relation to atmospheric contamination. Because bryophytes lack roots, many of their nutritional requirements are met by nutrients deposited from the atmosphere. Thus, they are sensitive indicators of atmospheric pollutants. Changes in the distributions of mosses (and lichens) are therefore an early-warning signal of serious effects of atmospheric pollution.


How Do Airplanes Fly?

This is currently a resource, not a lesson plan.

newtons 3rd law airplane reaction

(This image is only part of a much larger reason.)


Reaction force on airplane wing

No One Can Explain Why Planes Stay in the Air: Do recent explanations solve the mysteries of aerodynamic lift? By Ed Regis

Scientific American, February 2020, Volume 322, Issue 2

Aerodynamic Lift, Part 1: The Science, Doug McLean, The Physics Teacher Vol. 56, issue 8, 516 (2018)


Aerodynamic Lift, Part 2: A Comprehensive Physical Explanation, Doug McLean, The Physics Teacher Vol. 56, 521 (2018)


Understanding Aerodynamics: Arguing from the Real Physics, Doug McLean. Wiley, 2012

You Will Never Understand Lift. Peter Garrison, Flying; June 4, 2012.

Flight Vehicle Aerodynamics. Mark Drela, MIT Press, 2014.

#Flight #aerodynamics #Bernoulli #Lift


How much area would renewable energy require?

Many people believe that we must use either fossil fuels or nuclear power for energy production, because renewable energy (solar, wind) takes up far too much land area.

For instance, consider Ivanpah’s Land Footprint: World’s Largest Thermal Project Requires 92 Times the Acreage of Babcock & Wilcox “Twin Pack”, by Ben Heard, 3/13/2014, The BreakThrough

The author points out that the land footprint of a solar power plant is 92 times larger than the land footprint of a small nuclear reactor.  He thus concludes that we need nuclear fission power, not solar.

Although I certainly agree that there are safe and responsible ways to generate power from nuclear fusion, the case against solar and wind power is overstated and doesn’t hold up to close analysis.

It turns out that the power needs of the entire United States could be filled by renewable energy that uses less than 1% of land area in the nation. Further, that land could even be dual-purpose. There are many places where people grow crops under and between solar panels or wind turbines.

Prof. Katharine Hayhoe writes

People worry about how much land we’d need to supply the US with clean energy. Well, @elonmusk and I have independently calculated it and we both come up with something roughly comparable to the area we currently use for maple syrup or golf. A square about 100-120 miles per side.

As a 🇨🇦 let me hasten to clarify that I’m not advocating for removing maple syrup production but rather for co-production of energy on land that is also used for farming or pollinator ecosystems 😁 For example, @FreshEnergy runs this amazing clearinghouse, The Center for Pollinators in Energy

Lands Use Area comparison USA

This graphic from Here’s How America Uses Its Land, By Dave Merrill and Lauren Leatherby, Bloomberg, 7/31/2018

“Land use classifications are based on data published in 2017 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service in a report called the Major Uses of Land in the United States (MLU). Data from the report provide total land-use acreage estimates for each state across six broad categories. Those totals are displayed per 250,000 acres.”

Ramez Naam has a similar analysis, How Much Land Would it Take to Power the US via Solar?

Guest writer Ben Heard [see above] complains that solar’s land footprint (specifically at the Ivanpah plant) is 92 times that of a small modular nuclear reactor… What Heard’s Breakthrough Institute article doesn’t tell you is how tiny that land footprint, in the grand scheme of things, actually is. Do the math on the numbers he presents: 1087 Gwh / yr, or 0.31 Gwh / acre / year.

At that output, to meet the US electricity demand of 3.7 million Gwh per year, you’d need about 48,000 square kilometers of solar sites. (That’s total area, not just area of panels.) That may sound like a stunningly large area, and in some sense, it is. But it’s less than half the size of the Mojave desert. And more importantly, the continental United States has a land area of 7.6 million square kilometers. That implies to that meet US electrical demand via this real world example of Ivanpah, would require just 0.6 percent of the land area of the continental US.

Asked about this on twitter, Heard replied that larger size nevertheless is a disadvantage. It threatens ecosystems and endangered species, for instance. And this is a legitimate point, in some specific areas. (Though certainly far less so than coal and natural gas.)

But, for context, agriculture uses roughly 30% of all land in the United States, or 50 times as much land as would be needed to meet US electricity needs via solar.


Iridescence and thin film interference

Iridescence is a spectacular optical trick – it is the creation of color without pigment!

Consider surfaces that gradually change color as the angle changes. Soap bubbles, feathers, butterfly wings, some seashells, and certain minerals. Let’s dig in to what causes this phenomenon.

GIF Iridescence Python snake scales

The word iridescence comes from Iris (Ἶρις) the Greek goddess of the rainbow.

There are three ways to get color

Additive color – mixing together light of two or more different colors. Red, green, and blue are the additive primary colors normally used in additive color systems such as smartphones, TVs, projectors and computer displays.

Subtractive color – uses dyes, inks, or pigments to absorb some wavelengths of light and not others. The color that we see comes from the wavelengths of light that are not absorbed by these chemicals.

But iridescence is nature’s special, third way of producing color. In this method, color is created by wave interference with tiny physical structures on the scale of the color’s wavelength.

Iridescence in animals

Iridescence Bird feathers

Iridescence: a functional perspective

Iridescence in minerals

synthetic bismuth

Bismuth is a great example of thin-film interference. The colors come from a thin film of bismuth(III) oxide that forms on the surface if the crystals are formed in air.

Chemistry.stackexchange What causes the iridescent colour in bismuth?

The physics of thin film interference



Videos for thin film interference


Molecular Expressions Interference Phenomena in Soap Bubbles


Optical Interference – Java Tutorial


Molecular Expressions – Interference Between Parallel Light Waves


Discovering lost continents under the Earth

Never mind those stories about a “lost continent of Atlantis.” True, there likely is a lost island that is the basis of the Atlantis tale. Yet we know for a fact that there is no sunken Atlantean continent on the bottom of the Atlantic ocean or Mediterranean Sea. We can now literally see the entire bottom of the Atlantic seafloor in high resolution, and there’s no missing continent.

But although those tales of Atlantis as a lost continent are incorrect that doesn’t mean that some kind of amazing lost continents don’t exist. In fact, several do and we’re going to learn about them today!

We normally think of the Earth’s interior as looking like this


But now we know there are details:

To review what a continent is, and how one is defined, see Continents and plate tectonics

The Farallon Plate

Some text from Farallon plate, Karin Sigloch *08, Art of Science 2009

This is a three-dimensional structure of the Earth’s mantle under western North America, down to a depth of 1500 kilometers.

The Pacific coastlines and mountainous western states are plotted above an expansive, seismically fast structure, colored in purple, known as the Farallon plate.

It is a vast piece of ancient ocean floor that has been slowly sinking back into the mantle over the past 150 million years. The tectonic stresses caused by the Farallon’s movements deep underground have thrust up the mountain peaks and plateaus of the West. They continue to drive its volcanoes and earthquakes, thus shaping the surface appearance of an entire continent.

The Farallon Plate was an ancient oceanic plate that began subducting under the west coast of the North American Plate – then located in modern Utah – as Pangaea broke apart during the Jurassic period.

It is named for the Farallon Islands, which are located just west of San Francisco, California.

Over time, it was subducted under the southwestern part of the North American Plate. The remains of it today are

the Juan de Fuca, Explorer and Gorda Plates, subducting under the northern part of the North American Plate;

the Cocos Plate subducting under Central America;

and the Nazca Plate subducting under the South American Plate.


‘Lost’ Tectonic Plate Found Beneath California

How do we see inside the Earth

Continents of the Underworld

Large low-shear-velocity provinces, or LLSVPs

continents of underworld Large low shear velocity provinces LLSVPs

By Olena Shmahalo at Quanta Magazine, source data from Sanne Cottaar.


In Continents of the Underworld Come Into Focus, Quanta Magazine, Josjua Sokol writes

Decades ago, scientists first harnessed the echoes of earthquakes to make a map of Earth’s deep interior. They didn’t just find the onion layers you might remember from a grade school textbook — core and mantle covered by a cracked crust. Instead, they saw the vague outlines of two vast anomalies, unknown forms staring back from the abyss.

Over the years, better maps kept showing the same bloblike features. One huddles under Africa; the other is beneath the Pacific. They lurk where the planet’s molten iron core meets its rocky mantle, floating like mega-continents in the underworld. Their highest points may measure over 100 times the height of Everest. And if you somehow brought them to the surface, God forbid, they contain enough material to cover the entire globe in a lava lake roughly 100 kilometers deep.

In these regions, earthquake waves seem to slow down, suggesting that the blobs are hotter than the surrounding mantle. How do we know this? Rock expands when heated. That causes waves to travel sluggishly through warm regions, said Garnero, like the slower vibrations moving through a loose guitar string.

The slowing waves gave these features their formal name: large low-shear-velocity provinces, or LLSVPs — an unmagical abbreviation that may have contributed to the topic’s low profile. “We are also to blame,” said Sanne Cottaar, a seismologist at the University of Cambridge, “for misnaming this feature so badly.”


Learning Standards


pH diets, health, and homeostasis

Students need to be aware of pseudoscience diets. Some of these claim that by eating more acidic or basic foods you can change your body’s pH level, and thus treat disease.

Not only is this entire idea incorrect, if a person does change their pH beyond even a tiny bit then they will almost immediately die. Changing one’s body pH is almost impossible, but when it happens it is fatal,

What are acids and bases? Acids are bases are complimentary types of chemicals. Acids perform one kind of chemical reaction; bases perform the opposite action. Learn more here about acids and bases.

Here’s the critical point: When it comes to living, what matters is whether acids and bases are working in a safe balance. Cells only work correctly in a very narrow range of conditions.

Too much or too little of any molecule, and they begin to malfunction or die. Homeostasis is the body’s way of keeping chemicals  in a safe, dynamic balance.


Alkaline Diet, SkepDic

Alkaline Diet, RationalWiki

pH Mythology: Separating pHacts from pHiction

Alkaline Water Surges Despite Lack of Evidence

Alkaline food, McGill University

Chemistry lesson for The Food Babe… and everyone else #19: Alkaline Diets Do Not Cure Disease, McGill University


What’s the role of a teacher? Thoughts on the social emotional learning trend

An essay on the role of a teacher today, and the wisdom of the standardized social and emotional learning phenomenon.

SEL Social and Emotional Learning

image from casel.org

By Nick Parsons, Chemistry Teacher. 12/18/2019

Nick author

In wrapping up and reflecting on the 2019 year, I’ve been thinking about school a lot… too much. Overall, teaching has been mostly good to me.

I liked school as a kid for the common, superficial reasons, like socializing and doing extracurriculars (by extracurriculars I mean sports, not all the other stuff I “did” to pad up a resume).

I REALLY liked school for deeper, private, and more personal reasons, such as being a place where I had the opportunity to challenge myself and either: (1) fail, reflect, and grow to do something more challenging or (2) succeed, reflect, and grow to do something more challenging.

For reasons I don’t understand, satisfying the incessant, burdensome need to challenge myself and be better always, and probably forever will, feel better than almost anything else.

On a day to day basis, I slept through most of my school day because it was usually boring and school/ practice/ homework was a 7:20am-9pm job, with 2 hours somewhere in there to eat, shower, and take a break to collect myself to get through the current day, in preparation for the next day. The majority of days I would feel stressed, tired, and mostly, just content – not overly happy, not overly sad. I certainly was not a daily ray of sunshine.

I LOVED all of the teachers I had in high school, but I can’t remember any going out of there way to help me sort out, identify, regulate, reflect, or otherwise support my social-emotional state… and that was totally fine. Honestly, if they did it would be weird. Plus, I trusted they were all conscionable, decent humans and if there was something seriously wrong with me, I bet they’d notice and reach out.

Not only that, I knew who the adults were who would support me as a young person. They were the same people who held me to high expectations, saw me at my highs and lows, would call me out if I was lacking focus or being a jerk. It was all love and it was real.

I liked school because it was satisfying, and I got through it because I was hooked on that feeling and I had genuine, supporting people that would afford me opportunities to challenge myself, hold me accountable to engage with these opportunities, and support me, if necessary, in adapting to these challenges so I could be better equipped to face them in the future.

I liked school (and coaching) SO much, I decided to do it, not as a job, but as a vocation (there is a difference). My average work day is essentially the same as in high school. During the hours of 7am-9pm I go to school, then coach, then come home to lesson plan or grade. Somewhere in there, I get two hours to eat, shower, and collect myself to get through the current day, in preparation for the next.

The majority of days I feel stressed, tired, and mostly, just content – not overly happy, not overly sad. I’m a little more outwardly positive and “sunshiny” because I don’t want to be that weird, mopey coworker, and students are more productive if I, at least, give the outward appearance of being happy and enthusiastic. Thankfully, I usually am. Somedays, I have to pretend, But mostly, my students can read my by the end of a semester, understand how I’m feeling, and they’re usually cool and respectful of it.

I’m a firm believer in creating fair, well thought out policies and adhering to them with fidelity. I teach chemistry – not because I have some deep, inherent passion for it – but because it’s “hard”, demanding, and doesn’t require much background knowledge – almost every student starts on an even playing field of knowing pretty much nothing. It’s the kind of subject where if you work hard, challenge yourself, fail, and reflect, you do REALLY well in. And nothing feels better to me when students do really well.

We definitely do not take content time aside to share our feelings, but I for sure will ask students how their days are going, what their other classes are like, how their game went last night, if they were able to get sleep after their rehearsal last night. BUT only if they got the work asked of them first.

Once in a while I remind the children that they have my unconditional support. Far more often, though, I’m reminding them that school is like a job, effort doesn’t matter much to me because it isn’t a material thing I can grade, and in my room, to do well, they need to be producing the best work they can. If they don’t, they’ll know when it’s graded. And no, I don’t allow revisions or retests. My favorite teacher’ism might be, “Hey now, don’t get mad about it, just get better.”

In general, I have good relationships with students. I hear through the grapevine and through survey data that they like my class, that they know I care about what I’m doing, I put in a lot of effort into my job, and they admit that they learn some chemistry by the end of it.

I’d be omitting the truth if I didn’t say I also constantly badger kids to put their phones away, cold-call the kids sleeping in class, cold-call the kids who are otherwise distracted, or raise my voice to talk over students talking over me. And I definitely piss off a kid once in a while with my daily urgency for order, focus, and productivity above having “fun”.

If a kid gets disrespectful toward me after I hold them accountable for violating clearly laid out classroom policies that are fair, constantly revised, and regularly communicated, I don’t ask them how they’re feeling or worry about how I can help them regulate their emotions. I got 20+ other kids that need to learn! I don’t have the time or capacity for that. Plus, I don’t need to: I’m a teacher, they’re students. On a professional level, in no way are we equals.

They get another chance, in that moment, to do better. If they can’t do that, well they can talk about it with an administrator, or at home with their family after I notify whoever is taking care of them that I’m not tolerating that kind of nonsense. Usually the kid gets better after that, sometimes they don’t. While I would like better outcomes in these situations, I’m not going to take on that burden of altering their psychology and modifying their behaviors. I’m a teacher, not a psychologist or a therapist. That’s not my place.

Since I got into teaching, all I’ve been listening to is this SEL (social emotional learning) thing and how I’m supposed to teach students how to recognize and regulate their emotions to feel good all the time. But again, I teach chemistry, no one taught me or trained me how to be a therapist.

Most schools push for this SEL thing, but there are only 6’ish hours in a school day. I’ve observed, substituted, and taught in 5 schools in the past 5 years. I’ve noticed that SEL pushes out other time-consuming tasks like content and discipline.

I’ve also noticed and have crossed paths with plenty of literature saying rampant depression is ailing teens, in-person communication is bizarre for them, and that they are encouraged to fight for their right to feel good all of the time. Plus, I’ve had a lot of students who are far more interested in me being their friend rather than their teacher. Like, no… that’s super weird, not to mention unprofessional.

I’ve also witnessed, experienced, heard about, and read about early career teachers leaving the profession ENTIRELY from burnout, veteran teachers saying “school wasn’t always like this”, and almost unanimously, by all kinds of teachers, some level of regret for even entering the profession. I was warned by SO many teachers to not enter the profession when I made the decision to. That’s not hard, qualifiable, or quantifiable data, but it was a lot – trust me!

I think I was better off in school as a student than my current students that I teach. I went to school to learn, because that was the whole purpose of school. I definitely didn’t go to feel good, and it wouldn’t matter! Going to school wasn’t a “choice” thing for me – I went because it was my job. I got the sense that it was my job and I would work hard during it because that was prioritized more by my teachers and parents than them worrying about how my social-emotional state was.

It feels backwards now. Every year, I get the sense students think my role in the room is to be some entertaining, funny guy that is supposed to make them feel good and never make them feel guilty, ashamed, embarrassed, or like they’re doing a bad job. It’s not my goal as a teacher for kids to feel that way, and it’s not something I particularly enjoy, but yah, that’s going to happen. School is hard, and if it isn’t I don’t know if we could define whatever “it” is as school.

And I know why they feel this way. Social-emotional learning is the new “in” thing. I suspect they’re interpreting the message from SEL as, “Yes, getting good grades is important, but definitely not as important as feeling good.”

This is sad, because I think we’re robbing kids of opportunities to intrinsically “feel”. Instead, unqualified, therapist like, social-emotional focused teachers (like myself) are unintentionally pushing these half-baked, extrinsically sourced emotions onto kids. Then, when they find themselves in situations where intrinsic, genuine, and powerful emotions rise up, they’re not equipped with dealing with them because they haven’t been put in organic situations to deal with them independently.

I also worry that this constant expectation about how to feel and in what situations is making students (and plenty of adults) abhorrently intolerant to events, people, or actions that make them “feel” bad. I’m not saying people should never feel offended, mad, or hurt in their dealings with people and events, but there needs to be less pressure on people to HAVE to feel certain ways.

People make mistakes and upset other people. It happens, and I don’t think it’s going to stop happening while humans roam the Earth. But if we’re encouraged to reject anything that upsets or offends us in lieu of experiencing the myriad of emotions that naturally emerge in these situations, the opportunity to develop self-regulation, empathy, and perspective taking is in danger of being lost. Further, the inclination and need to reflect upon, think critically about, and consider future actions in regards to whatever it was that is upsetting becomes unnecessary and unimportant. Absentmindedly rejecting sources of negative emotions bring too hasty of closure.

And I think that is happening everywhere, especially in classrooms. Because emotions have become so embedded in the teaching profession, the line between what is personal and professional and how to feel about a person or event are becoming blurred. My biggest fear is that demanding expectations, conduct policies, and rigor, the stuff that makes school “school”, become villainous ideas that can be rejected and attacked.

I dunno. This SEL thing is complicated. But I liked how I went through school as a student, and I know I’m better for it. I’m really proud of who I’ve become and what I do and school was a big part of that.

I also know that whatever I do as a teacher, it’s going to be focused on:

1. Enabling my students to be equipped to be successful in the real world, and…

2. Providing them reasonably challenging obstacles, a focused environment to work hard in, and several opportunities to achieve something that they thought was beyond their current capacities, and…

3. Most importantly, to get them to FEEL, GENUINE satisfaction and joy at being successful, in SOMETHING. It only takes once to get hooked to that feeling.

Long story short, I like going to my teacher job to just teach because it is simple and rewarding. I think my students benefit the most from that as well.