Students on environmental field trip

Sustainability in Academics

Environmental Studies Concentration

Students in the Environmental Studies Concentration learn about human-environment relationships through rewarding interdisciplinary coursework. Courses in the sciences and social sciences culminate in a senior seminar. Many concentrators also pursue environmentally focused off-campus study or research opportunities.

Learn more about the concentration

Sustainability Coursework

Below is a sampling of environmentally-minded courses at Grinnell.

An overview of the relationship of agriculture to other aspects of culture through time and cross-culturally, including the origins of agriculture; the role of agriculture in subsistence and trade and its connection to social structure, religion, and values; and the rise of industrial agriculture and agriculture in Iowa.

An introduction to the chemistry of the atmosphere, natural waters, soils, and sediments, emphasizing chemical pollution and pollution prevention. Topics include:

  • atmospheric pollution,
  • persistent organic pollutants,
  • agrochemicals,
  • heavy metal contamination, and
  • emerging contaminants.

Two classes, one laboratory each week.

An introductory geology course that demonstrates that Earth systems (the atmosphere, hydrosphere, biosphere, and geosphere) are dynamically linked by internal and external physical, chemical, and biological processes.

Using process-response models, we examine:

  • the structure and evolution of the Earth,
  • how the rock record is used to decipher Earth’s past and predict its future, and
  • societal issues centered on the environment, land use, resources (water, mineral, and energy), and natural hazards.

Three lectures and one laboratory each week.

This course will address issues salient to place-based education, an educational philosophy that construes local communities (environmental and social), indigenous knowledge practices, and service-learning as the curricular building blocks of a broadly defined education.

Readings will include works addressing eco-justice, the broader social purposes of education, and the politics of place. Globalization and its intersections with notions of “the local” will also be a focus.

Global environmental issues discussed from the perspective of how these problems relate to each student. Emphasis on the geological, biological, and human history of Earth:

  • trends in global climate (including the greenhouse effect and ozone depletion),
  • species diversity (including episodes of mass extinction),
  • human demography,
  • international energy policies, and
  • global distribution of resources (including famine, lifeboat ethics, and the politics of north vs. south).

This course includes discussion of sustainable development of tropical forest, savanna, and marine ecosystems and readings from texts and current literature.

This course explores international water issues, focusing on the environmental, social, economic, and political implications of water scarcity. Emphasis will be on three interrelated topics:

  • water scarcity as a constraint on development,
  • water scarcity as a source of domestic and international conflict, and, in particular,
  • the environmental implications of water supply projects and their social and economic consequences.

Water management policy and the implications of changing climate on regional water availability will also be considered.

An investigation of the economics of renewable and nonrenewable natural resources with particular emphasis on the relationship between the biological and physical characteristics of particular resources and our economic choices. Includes consideration of selected current problems.

This course examines some of the central issues and debates in American environmental history, ranging from the era of pre-contact to the present day. Key topics will include:

  • the shifting patterns of land use and resource management among Native American and settler communities,
  • the ecological transformations wrought by commercial agriculture and industrial capitalism,
  • the evolution of environmental policy, and
  • the changing ways in which people have conceptualized and interacted with the natural world around them.

What are environmental ethics and why are they necessary? How should we understand the human-nature relationship? Is nature instrumentally valuable or intrinsically valuable? What special ethical challenges do global climate change and the global food system pose?

This class aims to introduce students to both anthropocentric and non-anthropocentric perspectives on these questions and will consider, in particular, the approaches of “enlightened anthropocentrism,” the land ethic, deep ecology, ecofeminism, and the environmental justice movement. 

Student Research

Grinnell students explore environmental issues through research projects, most commonly Mentored Advanced Projects (MAPs). Students also do independent research through seminar classes, independent major senior theses, and the Spark Social Innovation Project.

Centers and Programs

Grinnell College student garden worker harvesting Swiss chard

Center for Prairie Studies

The Center for Prairie Studies promotes Grinnell’s location as a teaching and learning resource with special attention to themes of community, sustainability, and place. The center sponsors lectures, supports student projects, and funds student internships. The center is also home to the Grinnell College Garden and the Rootstalk journal.

Student in sun hat takes photos of prairie life at CERA

Conard Environmental Research Area

The Conard Environmental Research Area (CERA), located eleven miles from the Grinnell College campus, is a 365-acre field station used for class field trips, student and faculty research, and quiet enjoyment.

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