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 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:

Fundamentals 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)

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.

Human Impacts on Freshwater and Marine Systems

Human societies depend on fresh and marine systems for drinking water, crop irrigation, aquaculture, commercial harvests, transportation, waste disposal, and recreation. Assuring sustainable use of aquatic resources and services requires assessment of how human activities affect these uses. Using the Hudson River and its watershed as the primary case study, this course will track the flow of water through the hydrological system, and the methods used to assess human impacts along this path. Experiences will include hands on sampling and sample analysis, as well as visiting working aquaculture facilities and drinking water and sewage treatment plants. (Taught by Dr. Andrew Juhl.)

Remote Sensing for Aquatic Environments

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. (Taught by Dr. Ajit Subramaniam.)

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 because 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. 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 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

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.

Climate science for Decision Makers: Modeling, Analysis, and Applications

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. Multiple impacts of climate anomalies to ecosystems, human health, and infrastructure have been widely documented, as has been, in many cases, the rise of both hazards and vulnerability. Fortunately, growing risks are being matched by a growing mobilization of intellectual and financial resources to make human and natural systems resilient and adaptive to a changing 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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. (Taught by Dr. Michaela Biasutti, Dr. Michael Previdi and Dr. Yutian Wu.)

Analyzing Ocean Health and the Implications for Humanity

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. (Taught by Dr. Braddock Linsley.)

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 first to 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 Assessment

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

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.

Sustainability in the Face of Natural Disasters

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. (Taught by Dr. Einat Lev)

Improving Public Health through Environmental Measurements in Water, Soil, and Air

Starting from a global perspective on the leading environmental contributors to the burden of disease, this course will lead participants through a series of case studies of environmental contaminations of natural or man-made origin. Airborne particulate matter from natural and anthropogenic sources, 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, soil, and air, 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, soil, and air, 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 water, soil, and water contamination. (Taught by Dr. Ben Bostick, Dr. Steve Chillrud, Dr. Beizhan Yan and Dr. Lex van Geen.)

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

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 provides 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