Curriculum

The curriculum focuses on science mastery customized for working professionals. Columbia’s Earth Institute designed and sequenced to develop a new generation of scientific leaders — a pipeline of skilled workforce in sustainability. Students have the flexibility to choose from a variety of courses in order to best prepare themselves for professional advancement. Students must successfully complete 36 credits or twelve courses, including three required courses.
The program’s coursework is organized by the following five areas of study:

Area 1 – Integrative Courses in Sustainability Science (9 credits)
Two courses in this area teach students the scientific underpinnings of the complex interactions between human beings and nature. The courses require that students integrate their knowledge of Earth observation, measurement, analysis, and modeling skills, as well as the use of scientific tools, to inform sustainability policy, management, and decision-making.

Required courses:

SUSC PS5001 Fundamentals of Sustainability Science
Fall 2018
Instructor: Dr. Art Lerner-Lam
The course covers the fundamentals of sustainability science with a focus on the application of science to the practice of sustainability. Basic research, especially in the environmental and social sciences, explores the Earth as a system of systems, wherein the physical, chemical and biological systems interact with each other as well as human systems to affect our future. The results of this research are often difficult to apply in practice unless the research in translated into actionable advice for individuals, governments and private enterprise. Even so, the actual or perceived complexities of interactions between human and “natural” systems are often seen by decision makers as barriers to long-term planning, an essential element of pursuing sustainability. A simple definition of sustainability is based on intergenerational equity. Thus, the relationships between the here-and-now and possible global futures need to be understood.

Units include the atmosphere, the hydrosphere, the biosphere, the cryosphere, the anthrosphere, and the lithosphere. In certain units, students will utilize standard software environments for statistical analysis (e.g., R), in addition to several web-based program (e.g., Climate Explorer), to analyze and model real observations.

SUSC PS5999 Capstone Workshop in Sustainability Science
Beginning in Fall 2019
Instructor: To Be Announced
Students study the sustainability science behind a particular sustainability problem, collect and analyze data using scientific tools, and make recommendations for solving the problem. The capstone course is a client-based workshop that will integrate each element of the curriculum into an applied project, giving students hands-on experience.

Area 2 – Methods of Earth Observation and Measurement (9 credits)
This area of study introduces students to basic scientific methods used in observing and monitoring natural systems. Students learn to apply these methods in assessing the condition of natural systems, and in making data-driven conclusions about their sustainability.

SUSC PS5030 Observing and Understanding Sea Level Change
Fall 2018
Instructor: Dr. James Davis
This course provides an overview of the science related to observing and understanding sea-level rise, which has a profound impact on the sustainability of coastal cities and ecosystems. In modern research, sea-level rise is viewed as a complex response of the Earth “system of systems” to climate change. Measuring ongoing sea-level change is challenging due to the great natural variability of sea level on short time scales caused by tides, weather, and ocean currents. Interpreting measurements so that one can assess (and mitigate against) potential economic and societal impacts of sea-level rise is crucial but can be complicated, since so many Earth-system processes play a role. Some of these processes are related and others are unrelated to climate change; some of the latter are natural and others are of anthropogenic origin. Students enrolled in this course will through lectures and class discussions address topics related to the underlying observational basis for sea-level rise.

Given the complexity of sea level rise, it is important for those in technical positions to understand the systems level interactions that not only lead to rising waters but also the consequences that these changes inflict on other parts of our environment. What we hear most commonly is that sea level rise will affect hundreds of millions of people living in coastal areas and make those populations susceptible to flooding. But in addition to this community effect, sea level rise also have dramatic effects on coastal habitats, leading to issue such as erosion, soil contamination, and wetland flooding, just to name a few. This course will introduce and prepare students to develop a more comprehensive and holistic approach to sea level rise. By training students to observe, measure, interpret, and begin to predict how sea level rise affects populations and communities differently, students will be in strong positions to address, mitigate, and adapt to the challenges more effectively using evidence-based approaches.

SUSC PS5020 Predicting the Effects of Climate Change on Global Forests
Spring 2019
Instructor: Dr. Brendan Buckley
Forests are often called the lungs of the earth, for their role in converting atmospheric CO2 into the life-sustaining Oxygen that we all breathe. Collectively, the global forests contribute to roughly 40% of the annual global carbon sink, and yet little is known about the drivers of terrestrial carbon sequestration, and the processes involved in these systems response to changes in climate. Forested landscapes also comprise some of the most critical habitats on planet Earth, by serving as refuge to diverse and often endangered flora and fauna, and as regulators of water and soils. These services are particularly important for highland regions where forests are heavily exploited and are often the primary source of water and food for marginalized human populations. This course takes an in-depth look into the current, primary literature on the direct and indirect effects of climate change on forest ecosystems around the globe, and examines some of the primary policy solutions to forest loss mitigation and sustainability. Because the instructor is from the LDEO Tree Ring Lab there will be an emphasis on using dendrochronology for understanding changes in biomass for forest environments, with emphasis on the broadleaf forests of eastern North America and the largely coniferous, fire-prone forests of the American West. Students will have access to multiple sources of data, including satellite, forest inventory, tree rings and eddy-flux measurements. The course will have a field component that will take place at the Black Rock Forest (BRF), about two hours north of NYC. Students will conduct primary research for a final project, with the goal being to develop a set of group projects related to forests and climate change. This course will prepare students to assess the impacts of climate extremes on forest systems and to understand the complexities of response possibilities from diverse ecosystems.

This course will combine lectures and assigned course readings to develop the framework for understanding global forest response to climate change. Each class will begin with a 5-question mini-quiz based upon the assigned readings and the previous lecture. This class will discuss the questions asked, techniques used and key findings of the papers, with discussions led by the students. The class includes a field trip to Black Rock Forest (dates TBD) where students will collect data for use in a class project, thereby providing the opportunity to develop skills in field research and data analysis.

SUSC PS5210 Environmental Sustainability Indicators: Construction and Use
Spring 2019
Instructor: Dr. Alex de Sherbinin
This course will present students with the architecture, data, methods, and use cases of environmental indicators, from national-level indices to spatial indices. The course will draw on the instructor’s experience in developing environmental sustainability, vulnerability and risk indicators for the Yale/Columbia EPI as well as for a diverse range of clients including the Global Environmental Facility, UN Environment, and the US Agency for International Development. Guest lecturers will provide exposure to Lamont experience in monitoring the ecological and health impacts of environmental pollution and the use of environmental indicators in New York City government. Beyond lecture and discussion, classroom activities will include learning games, role play and case study methods.

The course will explore alternative framings of sustainability, vulnerability and performance, as well as design approaches and aggregation techniques for creating composite indicators (e.g., hierarchical approaches vs. data reduction methods such as principal components analysis). The course will examine data sources from both in-situ monitoring and satellite remote sensing, and issues with their evaluation and appropriateness for use cases and end users. In lab sessions, the students will use pre-packaged data and basic statistical packages to understand the factors that influence index and ranking results, and will construct their own simple comparative index for a thematic area and region or country of their choice. They will learn to critically assess existing indicators and indices, and to construct their own. In addition, students will assess the impacts of environmental performance in several developing and developed countries using available data (e.g., pollutant levels in soils and air in Beijing and NYC), and project future changes based on the trends they see in their assessments. The course will also examine theories that describe the role of scientific information in decision-making processes, and factors that influence the uptake of information in those processes. The course will present best practices for designing effective indicators that can drive policy decisions.

SUSC PS5190 Remote Sensing for Aquatic Environments
Spring 2020
Instructor: Dr. Ajit Subramaniam
Aquatic systems are critical for provisioning ecosystem services that have sustained human civilization as evidenced by the establishment of the earliest civilizations on banks of rivers or along a coast. Apart from regulating climate, aquatic systems provide food and transportation services, fresh water lakes and reservoirs provide water for consumption and irrigation, and coastal systems offer recreational services. But growing human population, especially along the coast, has endangered the quality of ecosystem services. The primary finding of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment was that 15 out 24 ecosystem services examined are being degraded, or being used unsustainably. Monitoring the aquatic ecosystem and understanding how to distinguish between anthropogenic and natural variability is an essential aspect of sustainability science. This course will introduce the use of remote sensing techniques that can be used to study the aquatic environment. There are several space-based sensors that provide information relevant to sustainable management of aquatic resources. Depending on the sensor, observations are made as frequently as every day and spatially covering the entire globe.

Understanding the spatial and temporal context around an issue can help discriminate between local and far field effects and time series of remote sensing data can be constructed to investigate causes and consequences of environmental events. Thus knowledge of the basic science of remote sensing, understanding how to select the appropriate sensor to answer a question, where to find the data and how to analyze this data could be critical tools for anyone interested in oceanic, coastal, and freshwater resource management.

Area 3 – Analysis and Modelling Environmental Conditions and Impacts (9 credits)
Courses in this area train students to analyze and model scientific data to understand current and future environments and their interactions with human systems. By learning analysis and modelling, students are better able to inform sustainability policy, management, and decision-making.

SUSC PS5010 Climate science for Decision Makers: Modeling, Analysis, and Applications
Fall 2018
Instructors: Dr. Michael Previdi and Dr. Yutian Wu
Both human and natural systems are growing more vulnerable to climate variability (e.g., the anomalous weather induced by the El Nino-Southern Oscillation, or the increase in hurricanes that occurs when ocean currents warm the Atlantic) and to human-induced climate change, which manifests itself primarily through increases in temperature, precipitation intensity, and sea level, but which can potentially affect all aspects of the global climate. This course will prepare you to estimate climate hazards in your field thereby accelerating the design and implementation of climate-smart, sustainable practices. Climate models are the primary tool for predicting global and regional climate variations, for assessing climate-related risks, and for guiding adaption to climate variability and change. Thus, a basic understanding of the strengths and limitations of such tools is necessary to decision makers and professionals in technical fields.

This course will provide a foundation in the dynamics of the physical climate system that underpin climate models and a full survey of what aspects of the climate system are well observed and understood and where quantitative uncertainties remain. Students will gain a fundamental understanding of the modeling design choices and approximations that distinguish Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)-class climate models from weather forecasting models and that create a diversity of state-of-the-art climate models and climate projections.

This course will provide an overview of the ways in which climate model output and observations can be merged into statistical models to support applications such as seasonal and decadal projections of climate extremes, global and regional climate impacts, and decision-making. Students will develop the skills to visualize, analyze, validate, and interpret climate model output, calculate impact-relevant indices such as duration of heat waves, severity of droughts, or probability of inundation, and the strategies to characterize strengths and uncertainties in projections of future climate change using ensembles of climate models and different emission scenarios.

SUSC PS5050 Geographic Information Systems (GIS) for Sustainability Science
Fall 2018
Instructor: Dr. Frank Nitsche
Many environmental and sustainability science issues have a spatial, location-based component. Increasingly available spatial data allow location-specific analysis and solutions to problems and understanding issues. As result, analyzing and identifying successful and sustainable solutions for these issues often requires the use of spatial analysis and tools. This course introduces common spatial data types and fundamental methods to organize, visualize and analyze those data using Geographic Information Systems (GIS). Through a combination of lectures and practical computer activities the students will learn and practice fundamental GIS and spatial analysis methods using typical sustainable science case studies and scenarios.

A key objective of this course is to provide students with essential GIS skills that will aid them in their professional career and to offer an overview of current GIS applications. In the first part, the course will cover basic spatial data types and GIS concepts. The students will apply those techniques by analyzing potential impacts of storms on New York City as part of a guided case study. A mid-term report describing this case study and the results is required. In the second part, building on the basic concepts introduced in the first part, students will be asked to identify a sustainable science question of their choice that they would like to address as a final project. Together with the instructor they will be developing a strategy of analyzing and presenting related spatial data. While the students are working on their projects additional GIS method and spatial analysis concepts will be covered in class. At the end of the course Students will briefly present their final project and submit a paper describing their project

SUSC PS5080 Monitoring and Analysis of Marine and Estuary Systems
Spring 2020
Instructor: Dr. Braddock Linsley
From a global perspective, many of the Earth’s most important environments and resources for global sustainability are located in marine and estuarine areas. These areas are also difficult to monitor for logistical and political reasons. A few examples include 1.) oceanic environments were incompletely understood processes regulate the exchange of heat, water and carbon dioxide gas with the atmosphere, 2.) the relationship between nutrients and primary production and fisheries in open ocean, estuarine and coral reef environments and climatic phenomenon such as El Nino South Oscillation (ENSO), the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) and Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation (AMO).This class will explore the marine environment from a modern process perspective and evaluate what is known about interannual and decadal-scale variability of these environments, with respect to oceanic circulation, the flux of heat, gases and dust from the atmosphere and sediment from rivers. Throughout the class, we will explore marine and estuarine processes by studying regional and local responses to broader scale climatic forcing.

Area 4 – Scientific Tools for Responding to Sustainability Challenges (6 credits)
In this area, students learn how to use scientific tools in order to prevent, detect, respond and adapt to pressing sustainability issues, such as the loss of biodiversity, climate change impacts, soil and water contamination, and threats to populations.

SUSC PS2010 The Technology of Renewable Energy
Fall 2018
Instructor: Dr. Lawrence Schwartz
Renewable energy is generated from natural processes that are continuously replenished. Aside from geothermal and tidal power, solar radiation is the ultimate source of renewable energy. In order to have a sustainable environment and economy, CO2 emissions must be reduced (and eventually stopped). This requires that the fossil fuel based technologies underlying our present electricity generation and transportation systems be replaced by renewable energy. In addition, the transition to renewable technologies will move nations closer to energy independence and thereby reduce geopolitical tensions associated with energy trading.

This course begins with a review of the basics of electricity generation and the heat engines that are the foundation of our current energy systems. This course will emphasize the inherent inefficiency associated with the conversion of thermal energy to electrical and mechanical energy. The course then covers the most important technologies employed to generate renewable energy. These are hydroelectric, wind, solar thermal, solar photovoltaic, geothermal, biomass/biofuel, tidal and wave power. The course ends with a description of energy storage technologies, energy markets and possible pathways to a renewable energy future.

SUSC PS5040 Sustainability in the Face of Natural Disasters
Spring 2019
Instructors: Dr. Einat Lev and Dr. Suzana Camargo
Natural hazards, naturally occurring phenomena, which can lead to great damage and loss of life, pose a great challenge for the sustainability of communities around the world. This course aims to prepare students to tackle specific hazards relevant to their life and work by providing them the scientific background and knowledge of the environmental factors that combine to produce natural disasters. The course will also train students about the methods used to study certain aspects of natural hazards and strategies for assessing risk and preparing communities and businesses for natural disasters. The course will cover a range of natural hazards, including geological, hydro-meteorological, and biological. The course will emphasize the driving physical, chemical and biological processes controlling the various hazards, and the observation and modeling methods used by scientists to assess and monitor events. Many case examples, including hurricanes, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions that occurred in the last five years, will be given and analyzed for the characteristics of the event, the preparation, and the response.

By providing students with a solid understanding of past natural disasters, the course prepares them to think more critically about creating more resilient communities, which can resist catastrophic events. Students will be studying the underpinning scientific principles of natural disasters but will also learn specific strategies for planning, mitigation, and response. During the course, students will master cutting-edge tools and technologies that will prepare them to work in the complex and demanding field of disaster management. After completing the course, students will be able to understand past events, communicate risk, and make critical decision related to disaster and preparedness. In increasingly unpredictable times, there is a need for more resilient and connected communities, and this particular course will train students in both the knowledge and skills needed to lead and strengthen those communities and resilience efforts at scale.

SUSC PS5135 Air Pollution and Measuring the Environmental Burden of Disease
Spring 2019
Instructors: Dr. Beizhan Yan and Dr. Steve Chillrud
In this course, students will first be provided with a global perspective on the current status of environmental problems and the leading environmental contributors to the burden of diseases. Students will then introduce how air pollutants are produced, transported, and what are their environmental fates. This course will cover how air pollutants are measured and monitored, including government monitoring networks, NASA remote sensing techniques, and research tools for fixed site monitoring (indoor and outdoor) and personal level monitoring. Students will be able to learn basic concepts about the toxicity and target organs of different pollutants, both of which are important to understand dose-response and health outcomes. Building on knowledge of exposure and toxicity, Students will then introduce risk assessment and the Global Burden of Disease (GBD) associated with air pollution. Their usage in evaluating sustainability as well as their limitations will be introduced.

The course will provide students with the methods and tools to understand, monitor, and analyze current environmental health threats in air, and explore strategies for policy interventions for solving these at times complex challenges. Students will leave the course with a stronger sense of the power, and limitations, of environmental data and better equipped to evaluate and communicate the effectiveness of new interventions. After completing the course, students will more confidently be able to apply core scientific concepts to evaluating and addressing public health challenges posed by, for instance, fine particulate (PM2.5) contamination.

SUSC PS5250 Quantifying the Financial Impact of Climate Change: Scientific Tools and Applications
Spring 2019
Instructor Dr. Marco Tedesco
Investors in residential and commercial real estate, and those in infrastructure, are potentially exposed to risks of flooding, droughts and forest fires as a consequence of the reverberations of climate change on environmental factors and weather. Such risks are higher for stakeholders with properties close to the coast or in regions where drought and forest fires are increasing (e.g., the Western U.S.) as well as for financial institutions that finance their purchases and hold their securities. Risks associated with sea level rise, flooding, inundation and other extreme events have generally not been properly assessed nor quantified and it is currently hard for investors to assess the risks that they now face, and will face in the future, from climate change. Since Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy this has been changing and the 2017’s hurricane and forest-fire seasons (with four major hurricanes landing over southeast U.S. and fires in northern California killing more than twenty people) have been catalyzing this change.

This course will cover issues related to quantifying the impact of climate change on the financial and house markets and provide the students with updated references and recent progress on sea level rise, inundation and floods. This will be followed by the introduction, explanation and implementation of analytical and quantitative tools for estimating the increasing risks of extreme events using global and local scales. This will be complemented by a similar approach focusing on the financial and house markets. Students will be applying these concepts and knowledge to case studies concerning extreme weather and flood events such as Sandy, Katrina (or similar) to develop professional skills that will be applicable to other sustainability or extreme cases, either for mitigation and adaptation or for response purposes. Moreover, ‘Modules’ will be developed and offered that will specifically focus on practical aspects of the course and its applications. These include: GIS software (QGIS), basic programing (Python, Matlab, etc.) and other related aspects.

SUSC PS5350 Carbon Capture Utilization and Storage
Fall 2019
Instructor: Dr. David Goldberg
This course covers the technical and non-technical aspects of Carbon Utilization and Storage (CCUS), one of our most important and achievable tools to mitigate climate change. The course begins by presenting our global energy needs and the environmental motivation for CCUS and its natural analogues. Students will review the basic concepts and methods involved in CO2capture, trapping, and monitoring, as well as established methods for modeling the fate of CO2in the subsurface. Students will then consider the needs and implications of CO2capture from industrial sources (power plants) and directly from ambient air and examine current examples from around the world. This course will go on to discuss integrating CCUS with renewable energy sources (negative emission) and ocean storage options. Students will think through the challenges associated with CCUS, including the transportation of CO2to storage locations, regulations and incentives, and the public view and acceptance of this technology. The course will end with a discussion of where to go from here to find pathways to a carbon neutral future.

At the conclusion of this course, each student will have gained a practical understanding of the potential for CCUS solutions to mitigate climate change and gain experience in presenting related technical and non-technical information to their peers. This will critically inform decision making and hone communication skills for future careers in fossil and renewable energy generation, power distribution, manufacturing, environmental policy, and scientific outreach.

SUSC PS5330 Environmental Investigation and Remediation
Fall 2019
Instructor: Edward Garvey
This course covers the major steps in the investigation, assessment and remediation of contaminated sites. The course will introduce the student to the multidisciplinary aspects of environmental remediation, an important background for any environmental career, such as an environmental consultant, a corporate remediation manager or a government regulator. Management and remediation of contaminated sites is an important consideration in sustainable regional development, since failure to control contamination usually yields an ever increasing area of impact, with greater environmental and societal costs. Using US EPA Superfund guidance as a framework, the course will explore the major steps in identifying a site, establishing the degree of contamination, identifying the likely ecological and human receptors, and selecting and implementing a remedial action. The Superfund process has been extensively developed through more than 30 years of legislature and agency guidance, and now provides a robust approach for pollution assessment and remediation. Contaminated sites typically involve a broad spectrum of contaminants across at least two media, including soils, sediments, groundwater, surface water, and air.

This course examines the main steps involved in environmental investigation and remediation primarily from a technical perspective, although legal aspects will be incorporated at the major decision points in the process. In particular, the course will focus on the main environmental sampling and analytical techniques needed to conduct a remedial investigation, and cover some of the main remedial engineering considerations for the successful selection and implementation of a remedy. Students will be assigned one of several completed Superfund sites to track the application of the Superfund process to a real world example as the class proceeds, providing a regular link between theory and application.

SUSC PS5130 Improving Health through Environmental Measurements in Water and Soil
Spring 2020
Instructors: Dr. Ben Bostick and Dr. Lex van Geen
This course will lead participants through a series of case studies of environmental contaminations of natural or man-made origin. Topics include soil contamination with lead from mining and other industrial activities, and natural well-water contamination with arsenic are some of the topics to be covered. One of the goals of the course will be to develop the critical sense needed to distinguish undisputable harm from poorly substantiated claims and concerns by both reading the primary environmental and public health literature and analyzing existing data sets. The course will cover cases of egregious exposures in developing countries, as well as some environmental issues in and around New York City. The course will provide students with the opportunity to learn how to use and deploy several field kits and monitors for analyzing water, and soil, and assess the quality and implications of their own data. An emphasis on empowerment through measurement, mapping, and sharing of information will lead to a discussion of regulation, policies, and mitigation to reduce the burden of disease caused by environmental exposures in both industrialized and developing nations.

The course will provide students with the methods and tools to understand, monitor, and analyze current environmental health threats in water and, and explore strategies for solving these at times complex challenges. Students will leave the course with a stronger sense of the power, and limitations, of environmental data and better equipped to evaluate and communicate the effectiveness of new interventions. After completing the course, students will more confidently apply core scientific concepts to evaluating and addressing public health challenges posed by, for instance, soil and water contamination with lead.

Area 5 – Sustainability Policy or Management (3 credits)
Courses in this area examine the relationships among sustainability science, policy and management. Students learn about the socio-political and economic contexts in which sustainability science is practiced and the opportunities and obstacles for integrating scientific knowledge in decision-making.

SUSC PS5270 Managing Diverging Stakeholder Interests in Response to Climate Change
Fall 2019
Instructor: Dr. Robert Newton
This course will explore ways in which a changing climate drives divergent, often conflicting, responses from different segments of society: distinct economic classes, industries, communities, countries, etc. This course takes a case study approach, looking at how specific socio-economic impacts of global warming are changing alignments and/or deepening stakeholder entrenchment. It has become common to say that “society lacks political will” to implement effective climate policy; but a closer look indicates that it might be more accurate to say that strong, but conflicting, interests delay action. Further, when the costs of climate change and other environmental risks accrue to one social group while the benefits of new opportunities to another, regulatory policy can be badly distorted. To address this set of problems students will start with science-based projections of change in the Arctic and North America, and will look at how different stakeholders have already responded to change.

The course will include a segment on modeling stakeholder conflict. Several types of models will be described and students will have access to a version of the Human and Nature Dynamics (HANDY) model that has been modified to include delays in policy implementation. The HANDY model runs quickly enough to try out scenarios in class to test possible impacts of conflict and delay on environmental sustainability.