Environmental Science

Environmental science is the study of interactions between and among earth, ecological, infrastructure, and social systems. The study of environmental science allows us to understand the processes behind many of our most urgent societal challenges, including climate change, water-resource management, biodiversity conservation, public health, and environmental justice. Environmental science also provides a unique lens through which we can study the dynamics of our planet—in settings as diverse as a serene tidal marsh, an Arctic glacier, a wastewater treatment plant, or a community garden.

Students at Sarah Lawrence College have the opportunity to take environmental-science courses that provide the deep understanding needed to overcome the socioenvironmental challenges of the coming decades. In combination with courses in biology, chemistry, and physics, students can build the foundation required to conduct their own environmental-science research. They can also gain fundamental technical skills—including experience with geographic information systems (GIS), numerical modeling, and data science—which can be applied across disciplines.

Environmental Science 2022-2023 Courses

Natural Hazards

Open, Lecture—Fall | 5 credits

Natural hazards are Earth-system processes that can harm humans and the ecosystems on which we rely. These processes include a wide variety of phenomena, including volcanoes, earthquakes, wildfires, floods, heat waves, and hurricanes. The terms “natural hazard” and “disaster” are often used interchangeably. There have been many examples of natural hazards that have resulted in catastrophic loss of life, socioeconomic disruption, and radical transformation of natural ecosystems; however, through improved understanding of these phenomena, we can develop strategies to better prepare for and respond to natural hazards and mitigate harm. In this course, we will use case studies of natural-hazard events to explore their underlying Earth-system processes, covering topics such as plate tectonics, mass wasting, weather, and climate, along with the social and infrastructure factors that determined their impact on people. We will also explore related topics—such as probability, risk, and environmental justice—and the direct and indirect ways that different types of natural hazards will be exacerbated by global climate change. Students will attend one weekly lecture and one weekly group conference, where we will discuss scientific papers, explore data, and work on a collaborative project to investigate a potential natural-hazard event.

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Watersheds

Open, Seminar—Year | 10 credits

A watershed is an area of land (and the soils that underlie it) that drains to a common outlet. But this simple concept provides a critically important framework for understanding our most important water-management issues, along with many processes in environmental science and ecology. Watersheds can be defined across a range of spatial scales—from a suburban parking lot to the drainage basin of the Amazon River—and their diverse forms and characteristic represent a variety of climates, land uses, and topographies. In this course, we’ll learn how watersheds are delineated and explore the flow of water through watersheds, covering topics such as precipitation, evapotranspiration, infiltration, stream and river networks, and groundwater flow. During the second semester of the course, we’ll build on this foundation to study topics in watershed management, including water infrastructure, urbanization, interbasin transfers, flooding, water quality, and the impacts of global climate change. The course will include a weekly lab session, with indoor data-analysis activities along with field visits to sites in the Hudson River and Bronx River watersheds. No prior experience in earth or environmental science is required; however, students should be prepared to draw on the math skills they learned in high school for the water analyses that we’ll perform in this course.

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Pollution

Intermediate, Seminar—Spring | 5 credits

The pollution of our air, water, and soils is responsible for millions of deaths across the globe each year, along with immeasurable harm to natural ecosystems. In this seminar, we will study the chemistry of environmental pollutants that are most salient today—including lead, soot, pesticides, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), sewage, nutrients, and greenhouse gases—and learn about how their chemistry influences their fate and their transport through the environment and, in turn, their impacts on human health and natural ecosystems. We will also study basic techniques of pollutant monitoring and strategies to remediate different types of pollution and restore healthy ecosystems and communities. Beyond this, we will explore the broader concept of pollution, considering how compounds that can be vital to our survival can also harm our environment, as well as how thresholds for when a compound becomes a “pollutant” are determined. Course work will include both chemistry problem-sets and diverse readings about historic and current pollution issues. Conference work will allow students to develop a case study of a pollution incident or ongoing pollution hazard.

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Understanding Experience: Phenomenological Approaches in Anthropology

Open, Seminar—Fall

How does a chronic illness affect a person’s orientation to the everyday? What are the social and political forces that underpin life in a homeless shelter? What is the experiential world of a deaf person, a musician, a refugee, or a child at play? In an effort to answer these and like-minded questions, anthropologists in recent years have become increasingly interested in developing phenomenological accounts of particular “lifeworlds” in order to understand—and convey to others—the nuances and underpinnings of such worlds in terms that more orthodox social or symbolic analyses cannot achieve. In this context, phenomenology entails an analytic method that works to understand and describe in words phenomena as they appear to the consciousnesses of certain peoples. Phenomenology, put simply, is the study of experience. The phenomena most often in question for anthropologists include the workings of time, perception, emotions, selfhood, language, bodies, suffering, and morality as they take form in particular lives within the context of any number of social, linguistic, and political forces. In this course, we will explore phenomenological approaches in anthropology by reading and discussing some of the most significant efforts along these lines. Each student will also try her or his hand at developing a phenomenological account of a specific subjective or intersubjective lifeworld through a combination of interviewing, participant observation research, and ethnographic writing.

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First-Year Studies: Urban Ecology

FYS—Year

Ecology is a scientific discipline that studies interactions between living organisms and their environments, as well as processes governing how species are distributed, how they interact, and how nutrients and energy cycle through ecosystems. Although we may think of these processes occurring in “natural” areas with little-to-no human development, all of these processes still take place in environments heavily modified by humans, such as cities. This course will cover fundamental concepts in the discipline of ecology and then further explore how these patterns and processes are altered (sometimes dramatically) in urban environments. We will use examples from our local environment—the New York City metropolitan area—to understand ecological concepts in light of urbanization. The fall semester will include a biweekly outdoor lab session at local parks and field stations. Biweekly individual conferences with students will be held during both the fall and spring semesters. Special attention will be paid to the ecology of local streams and rivers, including field trips and work involving the Sarah Lawrence Center for the Urban River at Beczak. This course will also participate in interdisciplinary activities as part of the Sarah Lawrence Interdisciplinary Collaborative on the Environment (SLICE).

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Viruses and Pandemics

Open, Seminar—Fall

Ebola, smallpox, influenza, rabies...these and other viruses are the smallest lifeforms on Earth, yet they are one of the most powerful and devastating biological forces ever unleashed. Throughout human history, virally-caused pandemics have periodically ravaged human populations—altering the social fabric, confounding political and medical responses, and revealing the fragility of the human species. Examples range from the Antonine Plague, which killed five-million people during the time of the Roman empire, to the 15-million deaths during the Cocoliztli epidemic of the 1600s in Mexico and Central America, to the Spanish flu pandemic of the early 20th century that claimed an estimated 50- to 100-million victims. The current COVID-19 pandemic has reminded the world of the dominance of viruses and exposed the challenges of confronting these microscopic pathogens on a global scale. This course will examine the biology and behavior of viruses, the role of such pathogens in inducing different pandemics throughout the course of history, and the means by which they can rapidly spread through a population. We will explore how vaccines, quarantines, and other medical, social and political responses work to mitigate and eventually overcome viral outbreaks, as well as how we track down and study pathogenic viruses. During the course, we will consider the representation of viruses through readings drawn from texts such as Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone, John Barry’s The Great Influenza, and C. J. Peters’ Virus Hunter.

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Principles of Botany

Open, Seminar—Fall

Understanding the basic principles of plant biology is crucial to understanding the complex web of life on Earth and its evolutionary history. Nearly all organisms, including humans, rely on plants—directly or indirectly—for their basic needs. Consequently, plants are essential to our existence; by studying them, we learn more about our self and the world we inhabit. This course is an introductory survey of botanical science and is designed for the student with little science background. We will broadly examine numerous topics related to botany, including: cell biology comprising DNA/RNA, photosynthesis, and respiration; plant structure, reproduction, and evolution; and plant diversity, ecology, and habitats. Seminars and textbook readings will be supplemented by a field trip to the New York Botanical Garden. Conference projects will provide the opportunity for the student to explore specific botanical interests in detail.

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Gothic Decay: The Literature and Science of Soils, Swamps, and Forests

Open, Joint seminar—Spring

Western literature and culture deeply influence how our country negatively perceives transitional spaces, such as the spaces between cultivated land and forest or between water and land. The need for control pushes us to reshape or eliminate marshes, swamps, thickets, and other forms of overgrowth. Similarly, we feel uncomfortable considering the soils in which we bury our dead—or we ignore them completely. Yet, a closer examination of the biology of decay reveals cycles of life that follow death, with growth, reproduction, and nutrient exchange accompanying decay at every turn. We will read excerpts of literary works that have shaped our cultural perception of decay and of these transitional states and spaces, including works by Sophocles, Mary Shelley, Alice Walker, Robin Wall Kimmerer, and others. We will also explore the ecosystems themselves through lab experiments and trips to local parks and field stations (Center for the Urban River at Beczak, Untermeyer Gardens). This joint course will evaluate the divide between culture and science and explore how cultural representations may evolve with an adequate framing of scientific research and findings. This course fully participates in the collaborative interludes in the Sarah Lawrence Interdisciplinary Collaborative on the Environment (SLICE) Mellon course cluster.

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Genetics

Sophomore and Above, Seminar—Spring

At the biological core of all life on Earth is the gene. The unique combination of genes in each individual ultimately forms the basis for that person’s physical appearance, metabolic capacity, thought processes, and behavior; therefore, in order to understand how life develops and functions, it is critical to understand what genes are, how they work, and how they are passed on from parents to offspring. In this course, we will begin by investigating the theories of inheritance first put forth by Mendel and then progress to our current concepts of how genes are transmitted through individuals, families, and whole populations. We will also examine chromosome structure and the molecular functions of genes and DNA— and how mutations in DNA can lead to physical abnormalities and diseases such as Trisomy 21, hemophilia, or others. Finally, we will discuss the role of genetics in influencing such complex phenotypes as behavior or traits such as intelligence. Classes will be supplemented with weekly laboratory work.

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Plant Systematics and Evolution

Intermediate, Seminar—Spring

Understanding the diversity of plants and their evolutionary relationships is fundamental to understanding the complex web of life on Earth. Nearly all other organisms, including humans, rely on plants—directly or indirectly—for their food and oxygen. Consequently, plants are essential to our existence. And by studying plants in detail, we learn more about our own species and the world we inhabit. This course is a detailed survey of plant diversity and the evolutionary relationships of plants. You will gain a thorough understanding of the diverse morphology of plants and will acquire an understanding of the plant “Tree of Life.” You will be able to describe morphological structures of plants using botanical terminology and learn how to identify prominent plant families using diagnostic morphological characters and plant keys. Seminars and associated labs will be supplemented with independent field collections.

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Virology

Advanced, Seminar—Spring

Viruses are some of the smallest biological entities found in nature—yet, at the same time, perhaps the most notorious. Having no independent metabolic activity of their own, they function as intracellular parasites depending entirely on infecting and interacting with the cells of a host organism to produce new copies of themselves. The effects on the host organism can be catastrophic, leading to disease and death. HIV has killed more than 18-million people since its identification and infected twice that number. Ebola, West Nile, herpes, and pox viruses are all well-known yet shrouded in fear and mystery. During the course of this semester, we will examine the biology of viruses by discussing: their physical and genetic properties; their interaction with host cells; their ability to commandeer the cellular machinery for their own reproductive needs; the effects of viral infection on host cells; and, finally, how viruses and other subviral entities may have originated and evolved. In addition, we will examine how viruses have been discussed in the primary research literature and other media, with readings drawn from Laurie Garrett’s The Coming Plague and others.

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General Chemistry I

Open, Small Lecture—Fall

Chemistry is the study of the properties, composition, and transformation of matter. Chemistry is central to the production of the materials required for modern life; for instance, the synthesis of pharmaceuticals to treat disease, the manufacture of fertilizers and pesticides required to feed an ever-growing population, and the development of efficient and environmentally-benign energy sources. This course provides an introduction to the fundamental concepts of modern chemistry. We will begin by examining the structure and properties of atoms, which are the building blocks of the elements and the simplest substances in the material world around us. We will then explore how atoms of different elements can bond with each other to form an infinite variety of more complex substances, called compounds. This will lead us to an investigation of several classes of chemical reactions, the processes by which substances are transformed into new materials with different physical properties. Along the way, we will learn how and why the three states of matter (solids, liquids, and gases) differ from one another and how energy may be either produced or consumed by chemical reactions. In weekly laboratory sessions, we will perform experiments to illustrate and test the theories presented in the lecture part of the course. These experiments will also serve to develop practical skills in both synthetic and analytic chemical techniques.

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General Chemistry II

Intermediate, Small Lecture—Spring

This course is a continuation of General Chemistry I. We will begin with a detailed study of both the physical and chemical properties of solutions. This will enable us to consider the factors that affect both the rates and direction of chemical reactions. We will then investigate the properties of acids and bases and the role that electricity plays in chemistry. The course will conclude with introductions to nuclear chemistry and organic chemistry. Weekly laboratory sessions will allow us to demonstrate and test the theories described in the lecture segment of the course.

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Environmental Chemistry

Open, Seminar—Fall

This course provides an introduction to basic concepts of chemistry and their application to current environmental issues. Topics include acid rain, ozone depletion, air pollution, climate change (global warming), surface water and groundwater pollution, and plastics and polymers. We will then consider how human activities such as transportation, energy production, and chemical industries influence the environment.

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Biochemistry

Advanced, Seminar—Spring

Biochemistry is the chemistry of biological systems. This course will introduce students to the important principles and concepts of biochemistry. Topics will include the structure and functions of biomolecules, such as amino acids, proteins, enzymes, nucleic acids, RNA, DNA, and bioenergetics. This knowledge will then be used to study the pathways of metabolism.

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Intermediate Microeconomics: Conflicts, Coordination, and Institutions

Intermediate, Seminar—Fall

Economics was born in the 18th century, around the same time that capitalism emerged in Europe. Since then, economists have sought to understand the ways in which people allocate, produce, exchange, and distribute things in capitalist societies and how such activities impact people’s welfare. For the most part of the 20th century, microeconomics centered on the “efficiency” of the free market. Since the late 20th century, contending and critical paradigms have successfully challenged the narrow definition of “efficiency” and broadened the scope of analysis from the free market to a variety of institutions. In this course, we will examine the fundamental questions, such as: What are the incentives of individual decision making under different circumstances? How do individuals make decisions? What are the social consequences of individual decision making? We will not only learn about traditional issues such as how individual consumers and firms make decisions and the welfare properties of the market but also examine how individuals interact with each other, the power relationship between individuals, the power relationship on the labor market and the credit market and inside the firms, the situations where individuals care about other than their self-interests, the successful and unsuccessful coordination of individuals, and the institutional solutions for improving social welfare.

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Economics of Environmental Justice (Intensive Semester in Yonkers)

Sophomore and Above, Seminar—Spring

Environmental injustice is both an outcome and a process. As an outcome, environmental injustice is the unequal distribution of environmental burdens (or benefits) in a society. As a process, environmental injustice is the history and institutions that project political, economic, and social inequalities into the environmental sphere. In this course, we will focus on our immediate community: Yonkers, NY. We will first measure the disproportionate environmental burdens in the city’s low-income and minority neighborhoods. Then, we will utilize economics to examine the causal mechanisms of environmental injustice. We will focus on the evolution of the housing market, the changing demographics of Yonkers, the location choice of major pollution sources, and zoning policies. We will draw knowledge from multiple fields—economics, politics, sociology, geography, etc. We will examine the issue using multiple methodologies and assess different policy options for improving environmental and climate justice in Yonkers. There will be service-learning opportunities at local community organizations.

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Metaphysical Poetry

Open, Seminar—Fall

The best lyric poets of 17th-century England have been loosely characterized as “metaphysical poets” because of their “wit”; their intellectual range, rigor, and inventiveness; the versatility and trickery of their poetic strategies; and their remarkable fusion of thought and passion. Masters of paradox, these poets stage and analyze their expressive intensities with technical precision. They eroticize religious devotion and sanctify bodily desire with fearless and searching bravado. They stretch their linguistic tightropes across a historical arena of tremendous political and religious turmoil, in response to which they forge what some critics consider to be early evidences of the ironic self-consciousness of modernity, poetic dramatizations of the Cartesian ego. We will test these claims, as well as the sufficiency of the category “metaphysical,” against the evidence of the poems themselves. We will closely read significant poems of Donne, Jonson, Herbert, Phillips, Herrick, Vaughan, Crashaw, Milton, Marvell, and Behn. We will attend primarily to how they work as poems, looking at argument, structure, diction, syntax, tone, image, and figure. We will also consider their religious, cultural, and psychological implications. Students will prepare three papers based on class readings. Conference work is recommended in correlative topics: the English Bible, Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, Shakespearean and Jacobean drama, or influences on and comparisons to Romantic or Modern English poetry.

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Gothic Decay: The Literature and Science of Soils, Swamps, and Forests

Open, Joint seminar—Spring

Western literature and culture deeply influence how our country negatively perceives transitional spaces, such as the spaces between cultivated land and forest or between water and land. The need for control pushes us to reshape or eliminate marshes, swamps, thickets, and other forms of overgrowth. Similarly, we feel uncomfortable considering the soils in which we bury our dead—or we ignore them completely. Yet, a closer examination of the biology of decay reveals cycles of life that follow death, with growth, reproduction, and nutrient exchange accompanying decay at every turn. We will read excerpts of literary works that have shaped our cultural perception of decay and of these transitional states and spaces, including works by Sophocles, Mary Shelley, Alice Walker, Robin Wall Kimmerer, and others. We will also explore the ecosystems themselves through lab experiments and trips to local parks and field stations (Center for the Urban River at Beczak, Untermeyer Gardens). This joint course will evaluate the divide between culture and science and explore how cultural representations may evolve with an adequate framing of scientific research and findings. This course fully participates in the collaborative interludes in the Sarah Lawrence Interdisciplinary Collaborative on the Environment (SLICE) Mellon course cluster.

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An Introduction to Statistical Methods and Analysis

Open, Lecture—Fall

Variance, correlation coefficient, regression analysis, statistical significance, and margin of error—you’ve heard these terms and other statistical phrases bantered about before, and you’ve seen them interspersed in news reports and research articles. But what do they mean? And why are they so important? Serving as an introduction to the concepts, techniques, and reasoning central to the understanding of data, this lecture course focuses on the fundamental methods of statistical analysis used to gain insight into diverse areas of human interest. The use, misuse, and abuse of statistics will be the central focus of the course; specific topics of exploration will be drawn from experimental design theory, sampling theory, data analysis, and statistical inference. Applications will be considered in current events, business, psychology, politics, medicine, and other areas of the natural and social sciences. Statistical (spreadsheet) software will be introduced and used extensively in this course, but no prior experience with the technology is assumed. Group conferences, conducted in workshop mode, will serve to reinforce student understanding of the course material. This lecture is recommended for anybody wishing to be a better-informed consumer of data and strongly recommended for those planning to pursue advanced undergraduate or graduate research in the natural sciences or social sciences.

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Classical Mechanics (Calculus-Based General Physics)

Open, Small Lecture—Fall

Calculus-based general physics is a standard course at most institutions; as such, this course will prepare you for more advanced work in the physical science, engineering, or health fields. The course will cover introductory classical mechanics, including kinematics, dynamics, momentum, energy, and gravity. Emphasis will be placed on scientific skills, including problem solving, development of physical intuition, scientific communication, use of technology, and development and execution of experiments. The best way to develop scientific skills is to practice the scientific process. We will focus on learning physics through discovering, testing, analyzing, and applying fundamental physics concepts in an interactive classroom, as well as in weekly laboratory meetings.

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Electromagnetism & Light (Calculus-Based General Physics)

Open, Small Lecture—Spring

Calculus-based general physics is a standard course at most institutions; as such, this course will prepare you for more advanced work in the physical science, engineering, or health fields. This course will cover waves, geometric and wave optics, electrostatics, magnetostatics, and electrodynamics. We will use the exploration of the particle and wave properties of light to bookend our discussions and ultimately finish our exploration of classical physics with the hints of its incompleteness. Emphasis will be placed on scientific skills, including: problem solving, development of physical intuition, scientific communication, use of technology, and development and execution of experiments. The best way to develop scientific skills is to practice the scientific process. We will focus on learning physics through discovering, testing, analyzing, and applying fundamental physics concepts in an interactive classroom, as well as in weekly laboratory meetings.

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Critical Urban Environmentalism, Space, and Place

Intermediate, Seminar—Spring

In North American countries, 83.6 percent of residents live in cities as of 2020, and 56 percent of the world’s population is urban. Traditional environmental movements focus on the “natural” world, and the built environment tends to be undertheorized and perhaps underanalyzed. Yet, urban spaces are also sites of resistance, as residents create community gardens from vacant lots, paint public-housing project exterior walls, and lobby for city government support of the built environment. This course explores paths toward humanistic urban revitalization and civic engagement through community partnership. We will read in three main domains: knowledge of local and global urban environments; physical, mental, and social/community health; and theory and philosophies of urban environments. The relationship between urban sustainability and social dynamics, such as ethical decision-making and sociopolitical power relations (Sze, 2020), seem to lead to a particular set of public-private solutions. These are implemented from the top downward, without input from stakeholders and residents, with serious implications for resident health. In turn, health is strongly affected by the urban physical environment, infrastructure, pollution, population density, and the concomitant social environment (Galea and Vlahov, 2005). And as development occurs, long-time residents of neighborhoods are being displaced. How can we ensure that the health and welfare of all denizens are developed as well as purported positive economic change? The community-partnership/service-learning component is an important part of this class. For one morning or afternoon per week, students will work in local community agencies to promote health-adaptive, person-environment interactions within our community.

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Sociology of the Built Environment

Open, Lecture—Fall

This course begins with a question: What is nature? Over the course of one semester, we will answer this question—drawing on insight from science and technology studies and the tools of ethnographic methods. Lectures will explore key concepts in the sociology of nature—including Karl Marx’s reproduction, Michael Bell’s natural conscience, and William Cronon’s second nature—in addition to substantive topics like the human ability to act on nature, the politics of land ownership, the relationship between humans and animals, and the conception of humans and cities as natural spaces. Group conferences will be devoted to training in ethnographic methods and peer review of ongoing ethnographic work. For their final conference work, students will craft an ethnographic portfolio of weekly ethnographic fieldnotes, memos reflecting on connections to course concepts, and a final analysis that summarizes key findings.

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