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On the 50th Earth Day, A New Course: ENS 310 - How the Biosphere Works

Bopi Biddanda, Annis Water Resources Institute, Grand Valley State University

“Once a photograph of the Earth, taken from the outside is available, a new idea as powerful as any in history will be let loose”

– Sir Fred Hoyle, 1948

First Whole Earth Perspective:

On December 24th 1968, the crew of Apollo 8, looked up to see a blue Earth with white swirls rise above the stark lunar surface.  Ever since, this image of our lonely home planet set against the dark expanse of the universe has captivated our attention, galvanized the environmental movement, and initiated the celebration of Earth Day.  It appears, the 50th anniversary of Earth Day this year, is a good time to compose and teach a course on our home planet and its unique biosphere.  The course is also timely due to the unprecedented environmental changes taking place today under a human-dominated Earth – stressing the complex biosphere that sustains us all.  Furthermore, as the covid-19 pandemic ravages our world, the importance of a global and interconnected perspective could not be more urgent.

Earth and Moon

The whole Earth perspective (as in this image) will be foundational to the new course ENS 310: How the Biosphere Works.  The new elective course will be taught for the first time in fall 2020 under the Environmental and Sustainability Studies (ENS) Program.

The new course on the horizon: How the Biosphere Works

This new course to be taught for the first time in Fall 2020, will be a forum for learning about the evolution, dynamics and change in Earth’s Biosphere.  “How the Biosphere Works ” or “Biosphere” for short, will collaboratively explore the complex interplay between and among the major components of the Earth System and people for better understanding modern-day issues such as Global Change and Sustainability.  Classroom lectures will be followed by student-led discussion of assigned readings.  Students will take weekly take home quizzes to keep up with evolving classwork, and also have mid-term and final exams.  Additionally, they will be challenged to write critical term papers on a topic of their choice related to Earth’s Biosphere and present it to their classmates at the end of the course. Utilizing materials drawn from 4 recent and world-class introductory text-books on the subjects of The Earth, Earth System Science, Climate and Anthropocene, classes will be organized under the following broad themes: Idea of Biosphere; Life and Energy in the Biosphere; Biospheric Biomass and Productivity; Biospheric Cycles of Water and Materials; Biosphere’s Dynamics, Organization and Extent; Humans and Sustainability; Climate Change; and the Future of Biosphere. 

This elective course will serve junior and senior undergraduates with interest in Environmental and Sustainability Studies strengthening the scientific aspects of the program.  It will fill the niche of the Science of the Changing Biosphere (Environmental Science) needs of junior and senior ENS students whose Environmental Sustainability components are already pretty strong.  As such, the course expects a high level of responsible student participation and commitment. Note:  ENS 310 has the following prerequisite for enrolment – Junior standing, ENS 201 (Intro to Environmental and Sustainability Studies), and Completion of Natural Science Foundation.


ENS 310 Biosphere course will utilize the contents of a continuum of 4 books that will serve as the basis for classroom lectures and discussion, and as fuel for inspiring topics of term papers. Each book, written by world experts in their respective fields, costs ~$10, and is ~125 pages long.  Note:  Whereas the continuum of 4 text books on subjects from The Earth to Anthropocene has been selected to cover the subject of this particular course, teachers may adapt material from any one of these books to cover topics in their classrooms at the school or college levels.  For a review of one of these 4 textbooks – Anthropocene - please see the February 2019 issue of the InterChange .

What Comes Next?

If this undergraduate course “Biosphere” is successful, I plan to offer an advanced graduate course (lecture/discussion/term paper) in future years titled “Biogeochemistry of Global Change” – a course that will explore further the modern science of how our complex, dynamic and life-sustaining biosphere is structured and functions.  Such an interdisciplinary course may be offered under the Biology, Water or Natural Resource management graduate programs.

Source literature for students and educators :

Note:  These books can be utilized individually, or as a set to cover related topics taught in high school and college levels.

1.  The Earth by Martin Redfern (2003).

 2.  Earth System Science by Tim Lenton (2016).

3.  Climate by Mark Maslin (2013).

4.  Anthropocene by Earle C. Ellis (2018).