Material and Energy Flow in Engineered and Natural Systems

Site Overview

The transport and transformation of matter and the generation and use of energy are key concepts that must frame any technical inquiry into the interactions of humans with the natural world. The intent of this course is to introduce the major conservation laws and their implications in an environmental context. We want to establish an awareness of these concepts, and provide a set of analytic tools that will allow one to ask questions about any process one is interested inĒ from eutrophication in the lakes of Maine to bioaccumulation of toxic mercury in the food chain.

To achieve these goals, we have designed an inquiry-based course that uses laboratory studies, mathematical modeling, and statistical analysis to examine a series of environmental questions. The course consists of six modules. The first module will introduce the course's major concepts and expose the student to the computer-based modeling tools that will be used throughout the remainder of the course. The five remaining modules will each focus on a particular topic, examining each for a period of two weeks. Labs are designed to correspond to the classroom topic. In the first week of each lab module, we ask the students to develop simple mathematical models of the phenomena they will be studying and determine what data they will need to collect in order to test a key hypothesis in their models. In the second week, they will perform experiments and analyze their data to test the predictions of their models.

We have designed this course to teach students the set of problem solving skills we think are essential for understanding issues (and contributing to solving them) with significant environmental science content. We have assumed some basic scientific background, but recognize that with every topic students will need to learn some new science. We've tried to provide the background needed to understand the topics we've presented here, as well as links to further resources.

Throughout the course, we use environmentally based estimation exercises to hone students' ability to estimate the approximate scale or order of magnitude of environmental phenomena. These include, for example, asking the class to estimate - based solely on information students already have - things like the total amount of water flowing through the Lewiston sewage treatment plant in a day, or the average concentration of mercury in the tissues of Maine freshwater fish.

The topics for each of the models have been selected so that they cover a wide range of spatial and temporal scales. Subjects covered in the course will range from the molecular to the global in scale. We have chosen to span a wide range of scales in order to encourage students to see the connections between these scales.

We have created this web site to disseminate the material we developed for our course. Our goal is to create a textbook-like site. We hope that the material on this site provides an adequate foundation for a teacher to develop a course from. We have modified the material we used to make it less place-specific. We thank NSF for support in this venture, but all ideas and omissions are our own.

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