AP Environmental Science Course Perspective

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Authored by

  • Dean Goodwin
    AP Environmental Science | Kimball Union Academy
    Meriden, New Hampshire

Please note: The official College Board® Course Description is available below.

Environmental education is my passion. I designed and began teaching a college-level course in environmental science as a high school elective in 1989 and have been fortunate to be involved in the AP Environmental Science (AP ES) Program since its inception. Ask any AP ES teacher about the course and a common enthusiastic remark is the opportunity it provides to teach from an interdisciplinary perspective. No other course allows a teacher to delve so deeply into ecology (biology), describe the processes involved in the build-up of ground-level ozone (chemistry), explain the fundamental laws of thermodynamics (physics), or have a discussion on the global effects of the population explosion (social science/economics)! It merges the sciences and introduces new avenues to explore from a social science standpoint. The course is, however, deeply rooted in analyzing scientific data related to the environment in order to learn how the world works and to assess the extent of human impact on the earth. Probably at no other time in history has it been of such importance to fully understand our relationship to the planet. This is what draws teachers to the course and is what provides students with the desire to learn more about the environmental issues that are described in the media on a daily basis.

Students at the tenth through twelfth grade levels can successfully complete the AP ES course. It provides some students with the opportunity to take an AP science course when they might not take the AP Biology, Chemistry, and/or Physics courses. The AP ES course also provides teachers with a great deal of flexibility, not only in how to teach the course but also in its sequencing and lab and field opportunities. For example, teachers can create a student-focused classroom; the more students do research themselves and share it with others, the more they will learn, appreciate, and understand environmental issues. It is my experience that students respond well to this learning and teaching style, and show great interest in the subject matter. They rise to the challenge of critical thinking, problem solving, and active participation. Students enjoy this stimulation; they learn and have fun in the process as they feel ownership for what is done in class. They actively discuss, practice, and teach each other. It is exciting to teach about the environment using this novel approach, as it gets away from the standard lecture format that prevails in a teacher-focused classroom. Using this student-centered approach helps to address environmental issues from a local, national, and global perspective in an unbiased way.

As the AP ES course corresponds to a one-semester length college course, there is less pressure to "teach to the textbook" or rush through the material. Teachers have a lot of control in regard to the sequencing of the curriculum. I know some teachers who follow the chapter outline in their chosen text, others who always begin with ecology, and others who start out by studying population dynamics first. I have done all three, and this year I may begin with a section on energy, as this is currently a hot topic in the media. So there is no right or wrong way to sequence the course as long as the teacher emphasizes the links from one section to the next. (I always cover ecological principles early on, though.) Whichever way you choose, make sure you finish by early May in order to spend a week or two in review mode.

There are no mandatory labs that accompany the AP ES curriculum, although there are a number of suggestions in the AP Environmental Science Teacher's Guide. This once again allows teachers to have a great deal of input in the types of lab and field investigations they conduct, and it also takes into account regional variations in the types of studies that a school can undertake. It is not so much the actual content of the lab itself that is important but the process that students go through in collecting, assessing, and interpreting data. After all, this is also what is required of them in the free-response section of the exam. I know teachers who spend the whole year analyzing nearby aquatic ecosystems, while others use the local woodland for their studies. I place a strong emphasis on experimental design strategies into my lab section. This incorporates problem solving, where students have to evaluate a local issue and then design, conduct, and predict the outcome of experiments and give suggestions for future studies. This enables students to act as "real" environmental scientists!

The overall theme of the AP ES curriculum can be seen as balance in nature; a balanced system is sustainable and survives, while an imbalanced system deteriorates and collapses. This is the key to understanding and preserving the complex systems and cycles that make up planet Earth. These ecological balances are critical and cannot be ignored. The solutions lie in understanding and tailoring our endeavors in a way that will restore and sustain these balances. The basic goals in the AP ES course are to show how everything in nature is interconnected and to provide the information in an accurate, unbiased, and interesting way. The course allows teachers to show how environmental education begins in our own back yard and to instill a sense of place in each student.

I place a strong emphasis on how the AP ES subject matter relates to students' everyday experiences. Students can see the interplay between science, ethics, and values as they learn and apply the basics of critical thinking to environmental issues that humankind confronts, and describe actions that may be taken in order to cope with them successfully.

The AP ES Program has gone a long way to validate environmental education at the high school level, drawing in more professionals to teach the topic and helping to eliminate the view that such courses are only taught by a bunch of radical environmental activists! The AP ES teachers I meet each year, particularly as a question leader at the AP Reading to score the exams, share the same passion for the subject and provide some of the best professional development opportunities, through the exchange of ideas for the classroom and lab, that I have ever come across.

When students embark upon the AP ES course they gain a more complete understanding of the complexities of the earth's ecosystems. They develop a new appreciation and global awareness of the physical, aesthetic, and spiritual mysteries of our land... our planet... our home.