UNIV 111 FYE Seminar, Section 12

Measuring Nature

Fall 2008

Instructor: Brian Hanson

Peer Mentor: Caitlin McGinn

Meets: 3:35–4:25 Mondays

Memorial Hall 49

Text: Louv: Last Child in the Woods

Saturday Field Trips: October 4 and October 25

Tentative Detailed Schedule

Paper Assignment


Course Description

This course is  a 1-credit experimental First-Year-Experience course for undeclared majors in the College of Arts and Sciences. All 20 sections of this course were intended to develop themes from a common text, Last Child in the Woods.

The theme of our section is “Measuring Nature.” Everyone who enters a natural setting and looks around realizes that nature is complicated. The Environmental Science major at UD requires a lot of different things to acquire a basic understanding: biology, chemistry, geology, meteorology, climatology, physics, and some related math. Kids and pre-scientific societies don’t know all that stuff, so they start with myths. Children move from myths to knowledge via education. Society moves from myth to knowledge by developing something like the scientific method, and that requires collecting data.

In most science related to nature, we cannot do "experiments" in the usual sense of the word, but rather we measure things that were going to happen anyway: weather events, where are the trees, how much water and sediment are moving down a stream, and so on. Sometimes we call these measurement programs "field experiments," but the experimental design consists of deciding when, where, and what to measure and almost never consists of deciding what to make happen.

Nearly every controversy involving nature, such as any argument regarding endangered species, coastal erosion, or the importance of increasing greenhouse gases, is primarily a problem of not having the right kind of information. We understand the fundamental biological, chemical, and physical principles behind all of these problems, but we do not have enough data to know for sure what is going to happen. This is a problem for science and policy, but to some people the fundamental uncertainty and unknowability of natural phenomena creates a sense of mystery and wonder, and can be part of their enjoyment of nature.

Participants in this seminar will explore how limits of measurement create uncertainty in nature and how this affects how we think about nature from several points of view. A centerpiece of the activities will be two field trips to active research measurement sites. One will be to a mixed microclimate and ecological monitoring station at Fair Hill, and one will stop at sites where landform changes can be measured in stream environments.

This is a pass/fail course for which a pass will be primarily based on attendance and participation, completing the assessment matrix, and a short writing assignment based on the text and field trips.