The science behind the quest for a sustainable future

The Brundtland Commission in 1987 defined "sustainability" as meeting the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. The Science of Sustainability course explores some of the major scientific issues behind our understanding of sustainability. Through lectures, readings, and discussions, the class will explore such issues as biodiversity, population, food and water resources, climate change, energy, public health, and the overall forecast for the environment and the human condition for the next several decades. Students will gain a greater appreciation of how science can inform the policies and practices that will shape a more sustainable future.

Course goals

By taking this course, students will...

Student learning objectives

By the end of this course, students will be able to...

Course calendar

The calendar below is an example of how the course has been structured in the past. Like most non-studio three-credit classes at Pratt, the course meets for a total of 45 in-class hours— one weekly session of 3 hours for each of 15 weeks.

  • Week 1

    Course Intro / Dimensions of Sustainability; Climate Change I: Detection

    What information would you need to see if climate is indeed changing?

  • Week 2

    Climate Change II: Attribution

    What factors are responsible for recent climate change? And how could we know?

  • Week 3

    Climate Change III: Prediction; Introduction to the term paper assignment

    How can we attempt to predict the future of climate change? What must we assume?

  • Week 4

    Resources I: Energy (Part 1)

    An overview of trends in energy consumption and power generation, with a focus on the potential of coal, biofuel ethanol, solar and wind technologies, and hydrogen to meet the energy needs of the 21st century.

  • Week 5

    Energy II; Science Information Resources


    Continuing from the previous week. Exploring non-coal fossil fuels, resource extraction technologies, and nuclear energy.

  • Week 6

    Natural Systems I: Ecosystems and Ecosystem Complexity

  • Week 7

    Natural Systems II: Biodiversity and Conservation; Ecosystem Services

  • Week 8

    The Human Condition I: Public Health


    Focus will include 21st century infectious and chronic disease, drug resistance, and the relationships between disease and climate change.

  • Week 9

    Resources II: Food and Water

    What are the main food and water resource challenges for the future, and how might science work to assure their availability for all? Includes an exploration of the techniques, perceived risks, and potential benefits of genetically modified agriculture.

  • Week 10

    The Human Condition II: Population; Food and Water in Context

  • Week 11

    The Human Condition III: The Built Environment

  • Week 12

    Chemical Pollution and Cradle-to-Cradle Design

    Chemicals in the environment, chemicals inside us. E-waste. Cradle-to-cradle design.

  • Week 13

    The Future

  • Week 14


  • Week 15



Textbooks, readings and materials

Students do not have to purchase any reading material for this course. All required readings will be posted as PDFs or made otherwise accessible through the course website on Pratt's Learning Management System.

Course readings will include book chapters, government reports, articles from peer-reviewed journals (e.g., Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Science, Nature), mass-market science periodicals (e.g. Scientific American), and recent articles in the popular press. To comply with "Fair Use" copyright guidelines, students will need to authenticate with a Pratt userid and password to gain access to readings.

Projects, papers, assignments

Assessment and grading

Final course letter grades are based on 100%–90% for A-range, 89%–80% for B-range, etc.

There are NO opportunities for extra credit.

Course policies


It is absolutely in your best interest to attend all class sessions. Absences and late arrivals/early departures will count against your participation grade. On the comprehensive Final Exam, you are held responsible for all material covered in the course, regardless of whether you were present.

There are no out-of-class assignment opportunites for presentation/critique days. If you are absent, you will receive zero participation credit for the session you miss.

For all absences other than missed presentation/critique days, if you are absent AND if you contact me within a day of your absence, I will provide you with an out-of-class assignment which will be due at the next class meeting. This assignment will require well-researched answers to a series of questions that parallel the lecture and class discussion. Answers will require explicit citation to required articles and supplementary reading, and may require additional research to demonstrate graduate-level understanding. Timely and satisfactory completion of the out-of-class assignment will give you a chance to earn participation credit up to the full amount for the missed session. If you elect not to complete the out-of-class assignment, you will receive zero participation credit for the session you have missed.


As per Pratt Institute policy: I will only consider granting an incomplete if a student in otherwise good standing within the course can provide a compelling and exceptional reason for the request (e.g., documented unexpected illness, death in the immediate family, etc.) — in writing — before the final exam, and agrees to a contract for completion of all missing material. In no circumstance will incompletes stay on a transcript for more than one semester. An incomplete will automatically change to a grade of "F" if the deadlines and expectations in the contract are not followed. (Note that for graduate students, a failing grade may result in expulsion.)

Find out more