Environmental History of the Southwest as a General Science Education Course

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Environmental History of the Southwest is a general science education course at the University of Arizona with an emphasis on human-environment interaction of the past and an objective of preparing non-science majors to understand and critically evaluate contemporary environmental issues. The American Southwest is well suited for such a course, as it is rich in many data sets of paleoenvironmental reconstruction techniques and has been inhabited by humans for thousands of years. Lectures are grouped into three parts. Part 1, Background, covers geology and climatology, paleoenvironmental techniques, and ecosystems. Part 2, Past Environments and Societies, covers environmental changes since the late Pleistocene and human response to and interaction with those changes. Part 3, Modern Environmental Issues, covers contemporary environmental issues as well as past analogs or these issues for comparison. Lecture topics are interconnected with one another, making for a comprehensive study of environmental history. Several elements of science are revealed and discussed, improving general science literacy among the students, who are mostly non-science majors. Other regions of North America have had long-term human habitation and are also rich in multiple data sets of paleoenvironmental indicators, so nearly all of the continental U.S. and Canada is suitable for a course on environmental history and human-environment interaction.


General education is an important component of liberal arts higher education (Stearns, 2002). Critical thinking and the ability to synthesize and express wide-ranging information are desired results or a liberal college education (Clewett, 1998). At the University of Arizona (UA), the general education program "provides students with foundational facts, processes, theories, and habits of mind to meet the challenges of the 21st century across a variety of disciplines ... using courses designed ... to develop a critical and inquiring attitude and an appreciation of complexity and ambiguity, ... an empathy with persons of different backgrounds or values, and a deepened sense of self" (University of Arizona General Catalog, 2008).

Basic science literacy across disciplines is an example of general education. Major science organizations and funding sources promote science literacy for all citizens (e.g., American Association for the Advancement of Science, 2000; American Geophysical Union, 2007), and public understanding of science is the sole topic of an academic journal entitled exactly that, Public Understanding of Science (Sage Journals Online, 2008). General science literacy does not require understanding exceedingly complex concepts or knowing highly technical science (Jemison, 2003), nor does it mean turning everyone into scientists (McDonald and Dominguez, 2005). Rather, science literacy means being familiar generally with scientific tenets (e.g., plate tectonics in the case of geology) as well as being able to follow media accounts of scientific findings welfenough to evaluate them critically (Gregory, 1992). Science literacy also includes being able to apply quantitative skills and reasoning to real-world problems (Macdonald and Bailey, 2000). For example, literacy in geosciences allows citizens to understand and cope with natural hazards, which are often geological/climatological in nature (Grove, 2002). Ultimately, understanding science is a notable product of a liberal education (Hetherinton et al., 1989), and quality of life is enhanced when citizens follow and understand science (Brunkhorst, 1991). In post-college life, liberal arts graduates value highly their science general education (Chinnici and Hiley, 1998; Klenow et al, 1998; Pryor and Dallam, 1999).

An increasingly important area of scientific literacy is human-environment interaction, for example, human/societal adaptation to variability in climate (e.g., long-term events such as drought and/or temperature trends as well as short-term and/or extreme events such as flooding) (Kane and Yohe, 2000) and to deterioration in natural ecosystem health (Daily, 1997). …


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