Curriculum

The curriculum focuses on science mastery customized for working professionals. It is designed and sequenced to develop a new generation of scientific leaders and 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 points 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 points)

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:

  • The Basics of Sustainability Science – this survey course covers the fundamentals of sustainability science, including units on 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. (taught by Art Lerner-Lam, Michael Previdi, and Einat Lev.)

  • Capstone Workshop in Sustainability Science – students study the sustainability science behind a particular sustainability problem, collect and analyze data using scientific tools, and make recommendations for solving the problem.

Area 2 – Methods of Earth Observation and Measurement (9 points)

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.

  • Understanding Current Environmental Conditions through Observation and Experiment

In this course, students will learn about how different observing technologies inform us about the environment on a broad range of spatial and temporal scales. Emphasis will be placed on remote sensing, large networks of tree-ring datasets, flux towers, ground-based radiation spectrometers, atmospheric chemistry instruments, and the global seismographic network. This course will also have an ongoing local-measurement component, where we make regular measurements on the university campus using hand-held wind and weather meters as well as infrared radiometers to record the data and track records over the course of the semester. (Taught by Dr. Andy Juhl.)

  • Using Remote Sensing to Monitor Environmental Impacts

This course trains students in collecting information about areas of the world through remote sensing, the science of obtaining information using technologies, such as satellites and aircraft. Remote sensing is used for applications such as mapping and monitoring erosion of coastlines, measuring wave heights, tracking natural disasters and producing preparedness plans, and monitoring land-use, habitats, and the damage of urban development on the environment. (Taught by Dr. Christopher Small.)

  • The Earth’s Climate System

This course examines the fundamental physical processes that control the primary features and patterns of variability of the Earth’s climate system. Specific topics include energy balance and the greenhouse effect, the circulation of the oceans and atmosphere, land surface interactions and feedbacks, the role of the biosphere and cryosphere, paleoclimatology, climate modeling, and global and regional patterns of climate variability and change observed and expected as a consequence of anthropogenic influences. (Taught by Dr. Ben Cook.)

  • Water Resources and Climate

This course will cover the science needed to understand hydrology, the link between hydrology and climate, and why climate change will affect the hydrologic cycle. It will then look at what changes have occurred in the past, and what changes are projected for the future and how these changes may affect other sectors, such as agriculture. The final module of the course will look at adaptation measures to adapt to climate change. The course will be formatted to be a mixture of lectures and seminars, with the lecture portion used to introduce scientific concepts and the seminar portion to discuss and evaluate the readings assigned. At the end of this course, students will the hydrologic cycle and its connection to climate, how changes in climate have affected/will affect how much water is available on land, how water impacts ecosystem services, and how to diagnose the cause of a climate-related water problem and develop solutions to address it. (Taught by Dr. Laia Andreu- Hayles.)

  • Greenhouse Gas Emissions: Measuring and Minimizing the Carbon Footprint

This course provides students with the knowledge and skills to account for and manage greenhouse gas emissions, which contribute to global climate change. The course will address the importance of using estimation techniques to create  emissions inventories for organizations as well as for economic activities, such as transportation. The course will provide students an understanding of the protocols that govern the practice of carbon accounting, and the standards by which greenhouse gas emissions inventories are verified and disclosed to the public. Moreover, the course will help students understand how to use carbon accounting as the basis for developing and prioritizing emissions reduction strategies for the purpose of mitigating climate change risks. (Taught by Jonathan Dickinson.)

Other electives available in Columbia University departments.

  • Regional Climate and Climate Impacts
  • Earth’s Ocean and Atmosphere
  • Fundamentals of Ecology
  • Landscape Ecology
  • Food, Ecology & Globalization
  • Field Botany/Plant Systematics

Other forthcoming electives in the Sustainability Science program:

  • Earthquakes and their Interactions with Humanity
  • Observing and Measuring Human Impacts on Marine and Estuary Systems

Area 3 – Analysis and Modelling Environmental Conditions and Impacts (9 points)

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.

  • Using Climate Modeling to Understand the Present and Predict the Future

Students learn the practical uses of climate models and their limitations in understanding the present and simulating future climactic conditions. The course will examine the interactions among the oceans, land surface, and ice to prepare students for using climate system projections to inform work, such as building and infrastructure design and construction, natural hazard preparedness, and energy planning. (Taught by Dr. Michaela Biasutti and Dr. Yutian Wu.)

  • Data Analysis & Visualization in Sustainability

The course introduces students to a sampling of large-scale and open databases with sustainability-related information, and teaches introductory automated methods of data extraction, manipulation and visualization using Python and R. Students learn introductory scripts and write basic programs in Python and R to extract and manipulate data. Students conceptualize and describe use cases for available and localized data on traffic, emissions, forestry biomass, wetland and watershed material flows, usage volume in agency and crowdsourced databases.  Students perform summary analysis and visualization exercises using Python or R for these use cases. Students demonstrate the decision-support benefits of their analyses. Example databases include: California DOT traffic volume, US Automated Traffic Recorder data, US weigh in motion data, Census Tract level density and open space data, Zillow house price data, USFS biomass data, localized weather data etc. (Taught by Greg Yetman and Vali Mara.)

  • The Science of Sustainable Water

The sustainability of water resources is a critical issue facing society over the coming decades. Water resources are affected by changes not only in climate but also in population, economic growth, technological change, and other socioeconomic factors. In addition, they serve a dual purpose; water resources are critical to both human society and natural ecosystems. The objective of this course is to first provide students with a fundamental understanding of key hydrological processes. Students will then use this understanding to assess the environmental impacts on water resources of organizational activities, and to explore various sustainable strategies for integrated water resources management. (Taught by Dr. Wade McGillis.)

  • Theory and Practice of Life Cycle Analysis

This course teaches both the theoretical framework as well as step-by-step practical guidelines of conducting Life Cycle Assessment of a product or service in companies and organizations. Particular emphasis is placed on separating the more academic, but less practically relevant aspects of LCA (which will receive less focus) from the actual practical challenges of LCA (which will be covered in detail, including case studies). The course also covers the application of LCA metrics in a company’s management and discusses the methodological weaknesses that make such applications difficult, including how these can be overcome. Product carbon footprinting (as one form of LCA) receives particular focus, owing to its widespread practical use in recent and future sustainability management. (Taught by Christoph Meinrenken.)

Other available electives at Columbia University departments.

  • Environmental Data Analysis

Other forthcoming electives in the Sustainability Science program.

  • Climate Risk Analysis
  • Understanding Energy Impacts
  • Assessing Ocean Health and the Implications for Humanity

Area 4 – Scientific Tools for Responding to Sustainability Challenges (6 points)

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.

  • Combatting Soil and Groundwater Contamination

The human footprint is extensive and covers every corner of the Earth. This course will examine the fundamental science behind the contamination of water systems, the atmosphere, and terrestrial systems. The course will examine the origins of contamination, the human and environmental risks of that contamination, and solutions to these environmental problems. This course will draw upon examples and datasets from both developed and developing nations. The central theme of the course is that it is necessary and possible to consider our environment within the context of globalization and development. This course will provide participants with the opportunity to learn how to measure the magnitude and extent of pollution, and to devise solutions that both solve existing problems and proactively minimize or prevent future contamination.

  • The Environmental Burden of Disease
    (Taught by Drs. Ben Bostick, Steve Chillrud, Lex van Geen, and Beizhan Yan.)

Other electives available in Columbia University departments.

  • Energy Dynamics of Green Buildings
  • Management and Development of Water Systems
  • Field Methods for Environmental Engineering
  • Air Pollution Prevention and Control
  • Solid and Hazardous Waste Management
  • Industrial Catalysis

Other forthcoming electives in the Sustainability Science program.

  • Emerging Technology and Data Sources in Earth Observation
  • Climate Measurement Reconstruction for Sustainability
  • Air and Water Pollution Control
  • Geoengineering: Radical Approaches to Dealing with Environmental Impacts
  • Disaster Preparedness and Response

Area 5 – Sustainability Policy or Management (3 points)

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.

  • Sustainability Management

The course will provide an overview of sustainability concepts and practices and how they are applied in real-world contexts. This course will begin by clearly defining what sustainability management is and determining if a sustainable economy is actually feasible. Students will learn to connect environmental protection to organizational management by exploring the technical, financial, managerial, and political challenges of effectively managing a sustainable environment and economy. This course is taught in a case-based format and will seek to help students learn the basics of management, environmental policy and sustainability economics. The literature and case material focus on lessons learned in government, non-profits and the private sector. The course will emphasize management in public and nonprofit organizations and the role of public policy in sustainability, but it will also explore how these two sectors interact with private interests to promote sustainable practices. (Sections of this course are taught by Professors Steve Cohen and Howard Apsan.)

  • Policy and Legal Context of Sustainability Management

This course is designed to provide the student with an overview of the development and present status of environmental law as it relates to sustainability management. The student should understand the evolution of environmental law as a complex body of statutes, regulations, guidance, administrative and judicial decisions that address environmental impacts arising from emissions, operations, and products. Further, the student should understand the interplay of various policy drivers in shaping the law, an understanding that is transferable to any area of sustainability practice. (Taught by Rick Horsch.)

Other available electives:

  • Sustainable Operations

This course takes a broad high level approach at systematically analyzing opportunities to integrate sustainability at each step along a complex value chain.  Specifically, students will be asked to assume the role of a sustainability professional within a private sector company, tasked with integrating various sustainability strategies, initiatives and tools into the fabric of the business.

  • International Environmental Law

This course will provide students with an understanding of international environmental policy design and the resulting body of law in order to strengthen their ability to understand, interpret, and react to future developments in  sustainability. (Taught by Rick Horsch.)

  • Corporate Sustainability: Strategy and Reporting

This course is designed for those who will hold positions in corporations with responsibilities for mapping and managing Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) issues relating to a business, setting sustainability goals, communicating progress towards goals, and engaging with stakeholders, including civil society organizations, suppliers, customers, and investors