Earth Dynamics: Climate, People and History


Fall 2014 and Winter 2015 quarters

Taught by

physics, math, astrophysics
American studies


Facility with high school algebra. Good reading skills and decent writing skills. Ability and willingness to use computers and internet daily for assignments and information. Willingness to work in teams.

Earth’s environment has been shaped by human activity for hundreds of thousands of years, since early humans discovered fire. More recently, since Earth warmed out of the last ice age, humans developed agriculture and stable societies enabled the rapid development and self-transformation of cultures. Agricultural activities began to emit greenhouse gases and to change Earth’s air, water and land. People changed as well and began to document their activities, ideas and reflections. 

Millennia later, modern human societies use fossil fuels and modify landscapes with such intensity that Earth is unlikely to experience another ice age. Both contemporary industrial and ancient subsistence practices are part of the same long story of how human beings have used and shaped the environment and, through it, ourselves.

This program will examine how changes in the Earth system facilitated or necessitated human adaptations or evolutions. To Western eyes, until perhaps 150 years ago, the Earth’s resources seemed virtually inexhaustible. Organized human thought and activity unleashed unprecedented powers which reshaped the Earth. Life expectancy increased; arts flourished. The ideas of Enlightenment thinkers and the energies they harnessed seemed to promise unlimited progress. 

Yet some wondered if progress might have a dark side. They developed critiques of the practices changing how people produced food and materials, traveled and warmed their homes. What can we learn from their voices in the historical record, given what we now know about global warming and other anthropogenic impacts on Earth systems?

We’ll ask how human practices changed not only local environments but large-scale global processes. We’ll note patterns of interaction between people and Earth over time. We'll study natural as well as human drivers of climate change, including Sun-Earth interactions, volcanoes and greenhouse gases. We’ll consider the changing role of science in providing the understanding required for people and planet to thrive together. We’ll examine whether/how modern consumer societies are uniquely positioned to hasten and/or slow the dangerous direction in which modern resource use is driving our planet’s ecosystem. Is global warming a disaster, an opportunity or both? How do we adapt now, in the face of the most dramatic change to the Earth system in human history?

Our work will include lectures, discussions, workshops, labs, quantitative homework, expository essays, responses to peers’ essays, teamwork and field trips.  

Program Details

Fields of Study

Preparatory for studies or careers in

sciences, history, evolution, teaching, sustainable agriculture, sustainable energy and more.

Academic Website

Academic Website

Location and Schedule

Campus location



Offered during: Day


Buy books for this program through Greener Bookstore.

Online Learning

Hybrid Online Learning < 25% Delivered Online:

Required Fees

$200 in fall for overnight field trips.

Research Possibilities

Small student teams (2-3) will plan research projects in fall quarter and complete research in winter quarter. Workshops will help each team develop a research question of particular interest to them and a plan to test their hypotheses. Teams will present research planning and results throughout the program.


Date Revision
December 3rd, 2014 This program will accept winter enrollment without signature.
December 1st, 2014 Winter fee removed.

Registration Information

Credits: 16 (Fall); 16 (Winter)

Class standing: Freshmen–Sophomore; 50% of the seats are reserved for freshmen

Maximum enrollment: 52


Course Reference Numbers

Fr (16 credits): 10080
So (16 credits): 10081

Go to to register for this program.


Accepting New Students


New winter students must meet all prerequisites and be prepared to demonstrate knowledge of main fall topics through an exam. Please contact  E.J. Zita  for additional information and/or see the faculty at the Academic Fair during week 8 of fall quarter for additional information on how to get a signature.

Course Reference Numbers

Fr (16 credits): 20051
So (16 credits): 20052
Fr - So (1-16 credits): 20564

Go to to register for this program.

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