A multidisciplinary approach to considering the Earth’s changing systems

Bringing expertise from each of their disciplines, the School of Arts & Sciences’ Kathleen Morrison and Joseph Francisco and the Environmental Innovations Initiative’s Melissa Brown Goodall infused chemistry, anthropology, policy, and more into an introductory course on climate and the environment.

a student presents his poster in a climate change class
A poster session represented the culmination of the course Humans and the Earth System: How it Works, How We Got Here, and How to Save Our Planet. An introduction to climate change and other environmental challenges, the course navigated a broad range of topics, relying on the expertise of its three professors and several guest speakers.

In the bright, newly open Anthropology Commons on the third floor of the Penn Museum, professional-looking posters hang on the walls as groups of students discuss their research, occasionally pulling down a mask to take a sip of seltzer. 

On one side of the room, professors Kathleen Morrison and Joseph Francisco chat animatedly with senior Kerry Hsu about her poster on minimizing greenhouse gas emissions related to food. On the side opposite, Fernando Manrique, a junior economics major from Lima, Peru, talks with peers about his project, on the environmental and economic impacts of chemical fertilizer runoff.

The energized poster presentation represents the culmination of a highly multidisciplinary course offered for the first time this spring, Humans and the Earth System: How it Works, How We Got Here, and How to Save Our Planet, co-taught by Morrison, an anthropologist, Francisco, an atmospheric chemist, and Melissa Brown Goodall, an expert on environmental policy.

professors Kathleen Morrison and Joseph Francisco teach Humans and Earth Systems class
Senior Kerry Hsu, an economics major from Hong Kong, discusses a project on minimizing emissions in the food sector with professors Kathleen Morrison, an anthropologist, and Joseph Francisco, an atmospheric chemist.

As their final project, Hsu, an economics major from Hong Kong, Manrique, and the other 22 students in the course, each selected a topic that sparked their interest and delved into research. The projects, like the course as a whole, invited multiple viewpoints and perspectives on climate and environmental science. 

“We bring our different points of views to the table and the result has been amazing,” says Francisco, a President’s Distinguished Professor in the departments of Earth and Environmental Science and Chemistry in the School of Arts & Sciences. “Kathy bringing her insights into how people intersect with the environment, Melissa with her policy background, and me bringing the chemistry—it’s been awesome.”

A course to fill a need

The course emerged from discussions the three instructors had as leaders of Penn’s Environmental Innovations Initiative, an effort supported by the Provost’s Office and launched in late 2019 to bring together faculty and students to generate scholarship that addresses environmental challenges. Francisco and Morrison serve as the Initiative’s faculty co-leads, with Brown Goodall its senior director.

In the past, Penn’s Sustainability Office had compiled a list of courses that touched on elements of sustainability. In reviewing that inventory, “we saw that there really weren’t any introductory courses to climate change,” says Brown Goodall. And from the Initiative’s early work, there seemed to be a need.

“We heard over and over again that undergraduates wanted some kind of basic climate literacy course,” says Morrison, the Sally and Alvin V. Shoemaker Professor of Anthropology and department chair. “Many argue it should be required.”

We heard over and over again that undergraduates wanted some kind of basic climate literacy course. Many argue it should be required. Kathleen Morrison

Morrison encouraged her co-leads to develop a course—and then to co-teach it. Francisco and Brown Goodall agreed, and together they submitted their course description just before the deadline. 

Initially, Francisco, Morrison, and Brown Goodall thought they could divide the semester into three parts, each taking ownership of one segment: science, human interactions, and policy and solutions. “But it’s impossible to separate them,” Morrison notes. 

Instead, they took a collaborative approach. The class met each Wednesday afternoon for three hours in the Penn Museum’s Rainey Auditorium, and generally at least two if not all three of the instructors attended each meeting. “None of us is exactly a wallflower, so we’ll all jump in during one another’s presentations,” says Brown Goodall. “We’ll defer to each other and pose questions to each other.”

Their lectures and discussions were complemented by a bevy of guest speakers.

“It’s so energizing to hear what people are working on and learn from experts who have such deep knowledge in their fields,” says Brown Goodall.

The Earth from all angles

In April, one of those guest speakers, Erin Sikorsky, a Perry World House visiting fellow and director of the Center for Climate and Security, told the auditorium of students, “We’re entering a world that has no analogue.” Based off her years of experience in the national intelligence community, Sikorsky described for students the ways in which national security is increasingly taking into account the changing climate. “Climate change is at the top of our national security concerns,” she says.

During the same class meeting, Dorit Aviv, an assistant professor of architecture in the Stuart Weitzman School of Design, shared her work on novel passive cooling systems that can regulate building environments. 

Other guest speakers have included the Water Center’s Ellen Kohler, Eugenie Birch of the Penn Institute for Urban Research, Sustainability Director Nina Morris along with Sustainability Coordinator Natalie Walker, Jon Hawkings of the Department of Earth and Environmental Science, Farah Hussain of the Perelman School of Medicine, and Koko Warner, another Perry World House Fellow, with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. 

student pointing to a poster in the climate change class
Economics major Fernando Manrique, a junior from Lima, Peru, drew connections between the course and his other studies at Penn, sharing findings with Xime Trujillo, research coordinator for the Environmental Innovations Initiative. Manrique’s final project examined the effect of chemical fertilizers on waterways, including economic impacts from reductions in recreational opportunities and property values.

Leah Hopf, a first-year student from Nazareth, Pennsylvania, enjoyed these diverse perspectives, and particularly valued learning the scientific details of how climate change is happening. Speaking of Hawkings’ guest lecture, which delved into how different chemicals can be toxic and also have roles in contributing to climate change, she says, “I now have this deeper understanding—it’s not just a vague concept of ‘chemicals are bad.’ It’s ‘here’s how chemicals are good and bad, and here’s why we know that these ones are bad.’”

Christy Choo, a sophomore environmental studies major from Leonia, New Jersey, also enjoyed the complementary backgrounds of the teaching trio and guest speakers. “If they wanted to cover a subject they were not experts in, they would bring in a guest,” Choo says. “One person explored environmental justice issues, like how low-income countries have to face the consequences of the actions we take as a larger society. We talked about mitigating that and how that ties into urbanization, how that ties into green infrastructure, and how we can create cities that are resilient to climate change.”

We heard over and over again that undergraduates wanted some kind of basic climate literacy course. Many argue it should be required. Kathleen Morrison

Though Choo herself came into the course with a background in natural science, she feels it’s accessible, even to non-science students. 

“This class has definitely helped me inform a holistic approach to how I see the environment, looking at it from different perspectives, which I really value,” says Choo. “Studying something like the environment or climate change is so multifaceted that I think it’s important to approach it from a multifaceted, interdisciplinary point of view. I think more people should be taking this course.”

An evolving focus

Morrison, Francisco, and Brown Goodall hope many more students will get that chance. In Morrison’s view, the course may shift and change with student interest and faculty disciplinary expertise upon repeated teachings. 

“I think the ethos of the course works very well,” she says, “the idea of a team-taught operation that brings in different faculty who are able to contribute from their own interests and experiences.”

And from a pre- and post-survey the instructors gave to the students, they have evidence that their goal of improving climate literacy is working. 

For example, when asked “How sure are you that global warming (AKA climate change) is happening?” the percentage of students who answered “extremely sure” rose from 82% in January to 100% by the course’s completion.

Developed by the course’s TA, Karla Terroba, the survey will be issued throughout Penn next year, so the class gave the Initiative and Penn Sustainability the chance to beta-test it while also measuring the course’s impact.

No matter which field the students who complete the class go into, an understanding of climate change will resonate. “You can go your whole life without knowing the details of certain academic fields,” says Manrique, the student who researched chemical fertilizer pollution. “But you really can’t ignore the environment. It’s where we live.”

view of earth from space
(Homepage image) Touching on a broad range of topics from climate’s impact on national security to resilient building design to emissions related to food production, the course aimed to boost students’ understanding of earth systems and climate literacy. (Image: NASA)