Environmental Studies First Year Courses

DirectorI. Helfant

Colgate’s Environmental Studies Program helps students to understand the complexity of environmental issues and to underscore the consequences and impacts of the human experience on the environment. Students in environmental studies learn to think, speak, and write clearly and articulately about environmental issues from a variety of perspectives. The environmental studies curriculum combines interdisciplinary breadth with depth in a chosen field of study.

The Environmental Studies Program is an interdisciplinary program located within the Division of University Studies and staffed by faculty from a number of departments who apply their knowledge and expertise to teaching and research endeavors that cross disciplinary boundaries. 

Major Programs

The program administers five majors: environmental studies, plus four departmentally affiliated majors including environmental biology, environmental economics, environmental geography, and environmental geology. All five majors include a common set of courses that ensures a common interdisciplinary experience. At the same time, each student achieves depth in analytical ability by taking a specified suite of courses, usually in a particular discipline, chosen in consultation with her or his adviser.

Registration Suggestions

Students interested in any of the environmental studies majors or minor should consider beginning their program of study in the fall semester by taking GEOG 105 or GEOL 135. Students considering an environmental biology major are strongly encouraged to take chemistry and/or BIOL 181 in the fall. Students interested in environmental economics may want to take ECON 151 in the fall. Students interested in environmental geography might consider registering for GEOG 105. Potential environmental geology majors should consider GEOL 135.



Concentrates on the evolutionary biology of organisms and the ecological processes that influence the distribution and abundance of plants and animals, as well as their interactions. The history of biological diversification (including the origin of life; the evolution of prokaryotes and eukaryotes; and the invasion of land by plants, fungi, and animals) is discussed. In addition, the mechanisms of evolution, including natural selection, adaptation, and extinction, are studied. Topics in population ecology as they relate to evolutionary processes including physiological and behavioral ecology, population growth, and species interactions (e.g., competition, predation, mutualism) are also covered; there is a strong focus on the physical, chemical, and biological factors that affect populations. The course ends with studying ecosystem ecology and the impacts of global warming and anthropogenic impacts on the environment. 

Required corequisite to BIOL 181. Projects in the laboratory and field include experiments designed to understand evolutionary principles and to test ecological hypotheses.

The first half of a two-term sequence that introduces chemical principles that apply to all areas of chemistry. This course deals with molecular and reaction stoichiometry, gases, the first law of thermodynamics, the electronic structure of atoms, the periodic table, chemical bonding, and molecular geometry.

Required corequisite to CHEM 101.

A one-term course designed for the well-prepared first-year student. CHEM 111 covers many of the same fundamentals covered in CHEM 101 and 102, but treats those ideas in greater depth. Enrollment requires a score of 4 or 5 on the AP exam, an A or B on A-level exam in chemistry, a score of 6 or 7 on the higher level IB chemistry exam, or a 650 or higher on the SAT II Chemistry Exam. Students enrolled in CHEM 111 who meet the standards by the AP exam may receive only one advanced placement credit for general chemistry. CHEM 111 (or CHEM 101-102) serves as a prerequisite for CHEM 263, 264 (Organic Chemistry), or CHEM 333, 334 (Physical Chemistry).

Required corequisite to CHEM 111.

Explores water technologies and their evolution through time, and how the technologies related to water distribution and treatment evolve with human’s understanding of and interaction with water. Through the lens of science and engineering, students examine the role water plays in human health, the environment, and sustainability. Focused on history of water transportation; water quality issues, coinciding with an improved understanding of water following advances in chemistry, biology, and physics; and modern and emerging problems related to water and water technology. Students cover topics on the application and limitation of scientific knowledge, and broader impacts that technology has on past and current societies.

A general introduction to the subject matter and analytical tools of economics including micro- and macroeconomic theory.

An introduction to literary study that focuses on human responses to their environments and ecologies. This course explores representations of relationships between people, places, and animals in American fiction, poetry, and non-fiction from the early American Renaissance to the postmodern period. Questions of how environments are inflected by gender and racial positions, as well as literature’s insights into issues of environmental justice and sustainability, are addressed through works by writers such as Wendell Berry, Charles Chesnutt, Annie Dillard, William Faulkner, bell hooks, Aldo Leopold, Marilynne Robinson, Wallace Stevens, and Jean Toomer.

Professor McHugh 

Discovering Biology: Invasive Species 

Provides students with an introduction to biological processes through the lens of biological invasions. The practice of science and how we communicate science are considered through explorations of invasive plants and animals in terrestrial and aquatic habitats. Biological invasions are considered in the framework of broad ecological and evolutionary concepts, and in the context of global change. Students deliberate in written reports and class presentations on specific ways in which invasive species affect biodiversity, how they adapt to new environments, and how humans play a role in homogenizing biodiversity. Students who successfully complete this seminar will receive course credit for CORE 110S and satisfy the Scientific Perspectives core requirement. 

Professor Damhnait McHugh is a marine biologist who studies the evolution of animal diversity, both ancient and recent. Recently she has become very interested in the ecology and evolution of animals and plants that humans introduce to new habitats, in the sea or on land.

Human-induced climate change — global warming — is the defining environmental and social issue of our times. That people are dramatically altering the climate is now the resounding consensus in the scientific community. Potential short- and long-term impacts include biodiversity loss, sea-level rise and coastal flooding, more intense storms, threats to human health, and disruptions of freshwater supplies and food security. But while the global community increasingly understands the basic processes driving climate change, and is starting to appreciate the consequences of a warmer world, the coupled social and biophysical dynamics of global warming are complex and the issue remains controversial. This course explores climate-society relationships in industrial and pre-industrial periods, and considers the multifaceted natural and human dimensions of global warming. It also highlights the integrative natural and social science modes of analysis commonly used in the discipline of geography.

A study of the major contemporary concepts of biological, chemical, geological, and physical oceanography. The nature and origin of ocean basins by global plate tectonics, sedimentation, sea water composition, water masses, oceanic circulation, waves, tides, life in the sea, and biological productivity, are all discussed. The role of human impacts and environmental change, including ocean warming and acidification, and marine pollution are stressed throughout the course.

Explores our planet's 4.5-billion year history and how geologists unearth the past through examination of minerals, rocks, and fossils. Earth's evolution is a natural experiment that cannot be reproduced, and students make use of primary observational and interpretative tools that geologists use to understand the past. Age-dating techniques, plate tectonics and origin of continental crust, mountain building events, and evolution of Earth's landscape, atmosphere, oceans, and biosphere are examined in the context of the geological evolution of North America.

Required corequisite to GEOL 190. Laboratory sessions focus on providing a familiarization with common rocks, minerals, and fossils, and geologic field techniques, with an emphasis on how these materials and techniques are used to understand Earth and its history.

Trains students in historical methods by focusing on research, writing, and communication skills. Students learn to understand historiographical debates, assemble and assess bibliographies, find and interpret primary sources, construct effective written arguments, cite sources correctly, and develop appropriate oral communication skills. Depending on the instructor, the course may also include the use of non-traditional sources such as film or material culture, as well as the interpretation of historic sites, monuments, and landscapes.