Course Details and Policies

CH217: Environmental Chemistry

Spring 2018

Students in Environmental Chemistry will develop an understanding of how physical, chemical and biological processes in the environment create and define the natural world. As a chemistry course the focus is on the fundamental equilibrium and kinetic processes that control the global systems of the Earth including the composition of the atmosphere, ocean, and biosphere.   Building on the concept of residence time and chemical reactivity students learn how to evaluate the impact of anthropogenic modifications to the environment over a range of spatial and temporal scales. Current topics such as acid deposition, global warming, atmospheric ozone loss, and the fate and toxicity of heavy metals are discussed in the context of natural environmental processes.  Lectures and homework focus on problem solving skills that provide solutions to new environmental problems based on fundamental chemical principles and constants.

Invitation:  In this course, you will explore observations of the chemical composition of the natural world, discover intriguing natural phenomena and relationships, interpret them in the context of fundamental scientific principles, and use your findings to construct an understanding of the complex and endlessly fascinating Earth system. Our voyage of discovery will be guided by “big questions” about the Earth system – how it functions, how it is changing, how we know, what we can expect in the future, and what we can do about it. In order to make the most of the experience, I encourage you to:

  • Come with eyes and ears open, ready to look, ask, investigate, and share your thoughts and knowledge.
  • Engage deeply with the material, including outside reading, assignments, and activities designed to prepare you for class and enable you to maximize your learning.

In turn, I will endeavor to create an open and collaborative classroom environment, to stimulate your interest and curiosity, to actively involve you in the learning process, and to guide and share in your exploration of our beautiful, complex, and fragile planet.

Learning Goals:  

  • Explain the fundamental chemical, physical, and biological processes governing environmental processes and transformations and how they affect the chemical composition of the major Earth reservoirs.
  • Describe human activities and their effects on environmental processes and composition.
  • Identify sources of data and their associated uncertainties; visualize, analyze and interpret data from environmental observations; and formulate explanations for observed behavior.
  • Apply knowledge to perform quantitative calculations and solve problems.
  • Apply and develop model descriptions of the Earth system and its components based on fundamental chemical and physical relationships and use them to make predictions about how changes are likely to affect the system over time.
  • Synthesize information from a variety of sources/perspectives/variables to construct an integrated understanding of how interrelated processes shape the Earth system.
  • Appreciate the role of uncertainty and complexity in natural systems. Draw appropriate conclusions that account for the uncertainties inherent in environmental data.
  • Develop and Express evidence-based positions on environmental issues and suggest and advocate for constructive solutions.
  • Frame questions about environmental problems, conduct research, explore and discover new evidence and relationships, and construct and share knowledge.

Professor:  Karena McKinney
Office: 211 Keyes (x5767)
Office Hours: TBD or by appointment. Feel free to send me meeting requests through my Google Calendar.

Required: Environmental Chemistry: A Global Perspective, G. W. vanLoon and S. J. Duffy, EITHER 3rd or 4th Edition. ISBN: 9780198749974
Amazon Links: 3rd Edition, 4th Edition

Recommended: How to Build a Habitable Planet: The Story of Earth from the Big Bang to Humankind, Charles H. Langmuir & Wally Broecker (2012). ISBN: 9780691140063
How to Build a habitable Planet – Text Resources

Bunce, Nigel J., Environmental Chemistry 2nd. Ed., Wuerz Publishing, 1994
Howard. Aquatic Environmental Chemistry. Oxford Chemistry Primers. 1998
vanLoon and Duffy, Environmental Chemistry: a global perspective, Oxford, 2005
Spiro and Stigliani. Chemistry of the Environment. 2nd edition 2003
Girard. Principles of Environmental Chemistry. Jones and Bartlett.
Baird and Cann. Environmental Chemistry. W.H. Freeman and Co.
Jacob, Introduction to Atmospheric Chemistry, 1999

Homework/Quizzes                             25%
Class Participation                               15%
Midterm Exam (Week of 3/19)         15%
Research Paper                                     20%
Final                                                        25%

How this class will work: We will be making a lot of use of several (unconventional!) active learning methods. These include a ‘flipped classroom’ approach and team-based learning in the classroom. Each section will start with a reading assignment followed by a ‘Readiness Assessment’ activity in the next class. We will then spend several classes delving into the material through a combination of mini-lectures and in-class team activities. Each section will end with a formative assessment. Readiness and formative assessments will take the form of in-class individual or group activities or quizzes, or assignments.

Homework will be assigned regularly throughout the semester with details posted to the course homepage.  All homework will be graded.

Research Paper: There will be a final research paper due at the end of the semester. This paper will require you to research a topic of your choosing within the guidelines provided and write synthesis of your research. There will be several short assignments (such as a topic proposal and bibliography) leading up to the paper to help you develop your ideas. Additional details on the research paper assignment will be provided in the coming weeks.

Exams: There will be a midterm exam during the week of 3/19 (date/time TBA) and a final exam during the finals period.

Field Trips: There will be an overnight field trip to Maine Huts and Trails Stratton Brook site. This is tentatively scheduled for Friday/Saturday March 9/10. You are strongly encouraged but not required to attend (but it’s going to be fun!!). A second field trip to an environmental research site is in the works for April.

Attendance and Exam Policy:  We will follow the exam and attendance policy posted on the Department of Chemistry Web page.

Academic Honesty: All students are expected to do their own work.  In some cases you will be asked to work in small groups. We expect and encourage you to discuss the group activities with your fellow classmates.  It is also acceptable to work together on difficult homework assignments.  However, final completed homework and other written assignments, as well as any individual assignments or quizzes should be your own work.  This means that you should be able to explain in detail all of the steps and procedures used to solve a particular homework problem or assignment.  If you work in groups acknowledge the contributions of others by listing their name at the top of your assignments.

Academic Accommodations: I am available welcome discuss academic accommodations that any student with a documented disability may require. Please note that you’ll need to provide a letter from the Dean of Studies Office documenting your approved accommodations. Please meet with me to make a request for accommodations at the beginning of the semester—and at a minimum two weeks before any key due dates—so that we can work together with the College to make the appropriate arrangements for you­­. Dean Joseph Atkins ( is the primary contact for accommodations and any questions related to educational testing and documentation.

Course Schedule: (subject to change)

Date Topic
2/8 Big Bang
2/13 Elements and the Earth
2/20 Atmospheric Evolution and Element Cycling
2/27 Climate Change
3/8 Stratosphere
3/20 Troposphere
4/5 Acid Deposition
4/12 Water and the Oceans
4/19 Geochemistry and Redox
5/4 Energy for a modern world