CNSCI 2100: Humans and the Environment 

Instructor: Albert Liau, 617-528-9552, office hours Tuesdays 4P and by appointment

Course Description

We are altering our planet and ourselves in more ways than ever before. Through the lenses of systems thinking and behavioral change, Humans and the Environment (H+E) will examine what some of these alterations are, why they matter and what can be done about them when they pose serious threats to ecosystem and human health. H+E will begin by first developing these lenses, getting students acquainted with systems thinking concepts, major drivers of human behavior and strategies for effectively communicating information and catalyzing action. H+E will then consider what natural and human-made systems are involved in the areas of energy, water, food, waste and biodiversity/ecosystems services, how the structure of those systems or elements of them are problematic and what strategies are and could be effective at producing positive change. In addition to in-class discussion, readings, videos and short student presentations, explorations of these topics will be expanded by field trips and projects. 

Objectives, Outcomes and Expectations

Through this course, students will gain familiarity with (1) a range of issues that deeply affect the world and (2) with a variety of tools for engaging them. 

By the end of the course, diligent students should be able to (A) utilize a more informed and holistic perspective to understand and act upon challenges faced by communities and ecosystems, (B) realize a specific instance of this by striving to produce a particular positive change in the final project (see below) and (C) converse with a variety of people (peers, scientists, politicians, concerned citizens, etc.) about issues related to topics covered in H+E.

Required Texts

Meadows, D. (2008). Thinking in Systems. White River Junction, VT, USA: Chelsea Green Publishing.

Heath, C., Health, D. (2007). Made to Stick. New York, NY, USA: Random House.

Heath, C., Health, D. (2010). Switch. New York, NY, USA: Random House.

Heinberg, R., Lerch, D., Eds. (2010). The Post Carbon Reader. Healdsburg, CA, USA: Watershed Media.

Miyazaki, Hayao, dir. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. Toei Co., Ltd., 1984. Film.

Recommended Texts

Berger, W. (2010). CAD Monkeys, Dinosaur Babies, and T-Shaped People: Inside the World of Design Thinking and How It Can Spark Creativity and Innovation. New York, NY, USA: Penguin Press.

Brown, L. (2011). World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse. New York, NY, USA: W. W. Norton & Company.

Chivian, E., Bernstein, A., Eds. (2008). Sustaining Life: How Human Health Depends on Biodiversity. New York, NY, USA: Oxford University Press.

Leonard, A. (2009). The Story of Stuff: How Our Obsession with Stuff Is Trashing the Planet, Our Communities, and Our Health-and a Vision for Change. New York, NY, USA: Free Press.

Shedroff, N. (2009). Design Is the Problem: The Future of Design Must be Sustainable. Brooklyn, NY, USA. Rosenfeld Media. 

Additional Materials

This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about living a Compassionate Life, by David Foster Wallace

Lasting Impact, by Kevin Starr (


Course Prerequisites: an introductory science class

Flipped Classroom Approach

Class time will be spent largely working in a flipped-classroom format, meaning students will be expected to come to class having done the reading and any homework assigned as preparation for class discussions and activities; accordingly, a large portion of the final grade will be based on participation and professionalism (see below). 

Textbook Readings

Reading assignments are critical to understanding the course material and to performing well. As mentioned above, you are expected to come to class having done the assigned reading. The class discussions will clarify or expand upon the readings and will therefore assume familiarity with the readings. 


Students are expected to attend all classes. Missing a class without a legitimate reason (e.g. illness, personal emergency, field trip for another class, etc.) will result in a decrease in the Professionalism portion of the grade with three unexcused absences resulting in a full letter grade reduction of the student’s final grade for the semester. Students are allowed 2 unexcused absences before the final grade is impacted. 

Students arriving 15 minutes past the start of class time will be counted as absent. 

Students with legitimate reasons for missing class should contact the instructor or a teaching assistant (TA) ASAP and be prepared to show the proper documentation, such as a doctor’s note or letter from an academic advisor.  

For missed classes, students should make arrangements to access materials used in class (such as videos) and perform any activities (such as looking at samples with microscopes) to ensure they are fully prepared for exams. 

Professionalism (and Participation)

Students will very likely be in professional situations throughout their careers and the ability to act accordingly in such situations is important. We will take the time we spend together in this course as an opportunity to exercise our ability to act professionally. Participation can be thought of what (or how much) a student contributes to the class. Professionalism is how a student contributes to the class. Please be thoughtful of both. 

Students should exercise professionalism by showing consideration for everyone in the classroom by engaging the material and not being distracted, or worse, disruptive during class. In efforts to encourage engagement and maintain a professional environment, computer and cell phone use is not permitted during class time unless class activities or important circumstances require their use (details below).

Students who do not conduct themselves professionally will have their grades immediately and severely impacted. 

Conduct positively influencing a student’s professionalism portion of the participation grade include respectful treatment of peers (e.g. giving them the attention and courtesy they deserve), approaching presentations and projects with due seriousness (e.g. being prepared, communicating conscientiously with peers and the instructor when needed, contributing fairly to group efforts, etc.) and general efforts to be responsible and accountable. At the end of the semester, each student’s professionalism portion of the grade will be determined on the basis of peer feedback and instructor observation of a student’s conduct during class time and group work.

No-Device Policy

During class time, we will follow a strict no-device policy. To minimize distraction and encourage engagement, computers, tablets and cell phones may not be used during class time except for urgent circumstances or specific class activities (during which the instructor or TA will make it clear that the use of devices is permitted). The use of any of these devices during class time will immediately result in a full letter grade reduction in the final grade for the semester. 

If you need to take a call or respond to an important message, please step out of the classroom for privacy and to be considerate of your peers. If you have made accommodations to use technology in the classroom (e.g. for note taking), please let the instructor or TA know ASAP.

Communications Guidelines

The most effective way to communicate with the instructor is in person before & after class, during the break, during office hours or by appointment. If you have an urgent concern, please call the instructor at the number given on this syllabus. 

Grading Policy—TENTATIVE

Grades for the semester will be determined with the Lesley University’s grading scale (see below) with the percentage breakdown below. Please note that this is tentative and may change depending on students’ interests and engagement.  

Projects, 40: Planetline, 15; Splash class or Creating Impact Project, 25 (includes work toward the final outcome) 

Participation & Professionalism, 30: discussion, 15; group presentation, 15

Assignments, 30: written work (news story analyses, systems diagrams), 15; outside of class activities, 15

The class participation will be evaluated by the quality of a student’s (1) presentation of informational research done on specific topics (see below) and (2) responses to questions and contributions to in-class discussions.

Evaluation of Participation and Performance

Class time will involve (1) in-depth discussions, (2) student presentations and if scheduling permits (3) visits from guest speakers. For (1), students will be asked to bring in examples of topics covered in class (from the readings and other sources such as news stories) as well as comment on examples given by their fellow students; for example, following a general discussion of recycling and downcycling, students may be asked to find out how one specific material is re/downcycled. The clarity, level of detail and ability to answer questions during these presentations will constitute a significant part of evaluating a student’s participation.

Each student will pair up with another student to regularly check in on progress and concerns regarding class assignments, projects, etc. Feedback given to peers should be thoughtful and respectful, while feedback from peers should be considered seriously. 

About halfway through the semester, students should set up appointments to discuss their performance in the class with the instructor or course assistant. Details will be given as the middle of the semester approaches. 

Splash Class

Students will pick a topic related to the course and develop a class session (2 hours minimum in length) to be presented to high school students attending MIT’s Splash educational outreach program. More details will be discussed during class. 

Creating Impact Project

To apply the perspectives and knowledge gained in this course, students will formulate then execute a plan that produces or stimulates positive change for an issue related to the topics covered in class. For this project, the problem, solution and impact should be carefully considered and well defined. Students may work together in groups and collaborate with organizations or other individuals. Grading of the final project will be based upon how well students (1) formulate clear understanding of the challenge (e.g. create a simple, effective mission statement following Kevin Starr’s guidelines, conduct necessary background research, etc.), (2) constructively engage the challenge by developing and implementing a solution (e.g. utilizing the Define, Develop, Do, Digest process, etc.), and (3) present their projects to the class.

Outside of Classroom Activities (OCAs)
In addition to reading and writing assignments during the semester, students must pursue 3 outside of classroom activities and turn in two-page reflections (one paragraph summarizing factual information, the remainder interpretation/discussion and systems diagram) for course credit. More detailed guidelines will be given during the semester. Acceptable outside of classroom activities are:

A. Attending a talk, seminar, conference, etc. regarding an environmental topic.

B. Identifying environment-related concerns in a local area (around the student’s residence, Lesley campuses, Cambridge or greater Boston, etc.). In doing this work, students should at no point be putting their health and well being at risk. Students must engage this inquiry as well informed as possible, exercising all prudent precautions. Students should take advantage of as many sources of information as possible (e.g. public records, interviews with town residents or even officials, newspaper articles, etc.).

C. Visiting a store, restaurant, company, group, organization, etc. related to topics in the class. Students must as fully as possible engage the location visited by, for example, making detailed observations and asking questions. In the past, students have visited the Fresh Pond Water Treatment Facility, the headquarters, the Casella recycling facility, the Clover restaurant and a winter farmer’s market.

Course Schedule: Rough outline by topic and week.  Please note that this is tentative and may change depending on students’ interests and engagement. 

Systems Thinking, weeks 1-2

Thinking in Systems chapters 1, 3 & 4 (2 optional but recommended)

Systems diagram based on Fresh Air interview with Tom Philpott

Frameworks for Change: making ideas sticky, shifting behaviors and understanding impact, weeks 2-3

Made to Stick intro and chapters 1-3, Switch chapters 1-6 (entire book recommended)

Improving teen driving news story analysis

Energy: basic concepts, obstacles to alternative energy; weeks 3-4

Post Carbon Reader (PCR) chapters 17-18

Energy grid news story analysis

Presentation of midterm projects, week 5

Water: availability, usage, control & ownership; weeks 6-7

PCR chapter 7, Fresh Air interview with Charles Fishman, presenting group: The Big Thirst (entire book) or other resource

Agriculture and Food: the nature of food, the impact of industrial agriculture, food safety, the role of local foodsheds; weeks 8-9

PCR chatpers 9-11, presenting group: The Real Cost of Cheap Food (entire book) or other resource

School lunches in India new story analysis

Stuff, Waste and Toxins; weeks 9-10

PCR chapter 28, presenting group: Story of Stuff (entire book) or other resource

Biodiversity and Ecosystems Services; week 11

PCR chapter 8, presenting group: Sustaining Life (selected sections) or other resource

Creating Impact Project presentations during finals week


Academic Responsibility  

Unless prior approval is granted by the instructor, all work submitted for this course is to be your own original work completed specifically for this course and not previously or concurrently submitted to any other instructor. All infractions of this policy will be taken seriously and pursued accordingly. Please refer to the Student Handbook for more specific policy guidelines.

Grading Scale (as per LC catalog)

A   = 93-100 B   = 83-86 C   = 73-76 D  =  63-66

A-  = 90-92 B-  = 80-82 C-  = 70-72 D- =  60-62

B+ = 87-89 C+ = 77-79 D+ = 67-69 F   =  59 and below

Incompletes (I)

In exceptional cases, where an unanticipated event beyond one’s control interferes with a student’s completion of course requirements, a letter grade of “I” (Incomplete) may be give to a student at the instructor’s discretion. Student and instructor must complete and sign an Incomplete Contract. Responsibility for completion of work rests with the student. The deadline for completion is the end of the following semester. Contracted work not completed by that time is recorded “I/F” (Failing).

Disability Services for Students

Lesley University is committed to ensuring that all qualified students with disabilities are afforded an equal opportunity to participate in and benefit from its programs and services. To receive accommodations, a student must have a documented disability as defined by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), and provide documentation of the disability.  Eligibility for reasonable accommodations will be based on the documentation provided.  

If you are a student with a documented disability, or feel that you may have a disability, please contact the following.