Math and Science In Your Life

Science, Math and Technology Resources at Empire State College

*Contemporary Environmental Issues

How can you decide if global warming, or human population growth, or biodiversity loss represent significant threats to the ecosystems of our planet? There are many sources for environmental information, but how do you know if a source is credible? And when credible sources disagree how can we decide who’s right?

This interdisciplinary course examines a broad range of contemporary environmental issues; biodiversity, pollution, population growth, and global warming. The course focuses on how these global issues affect us locally and it promotes the development of a competent and confident environmental literacy that will enable students to take a role in debates and action. The course explores environmental materials in a variety of media and teaches students how to navigate these materials; how to analyze and evaluate information; how to balance information from a variety of scientific and non-scientific, objective and subjective sources; and how to develop arguments surrounding environmental problems.

This course features field activities that relate the study of local ecosystems to broader environmental issues. This course also makes use of an online statistical analysis package named StatCrunch. You can view a  StatCrunch tutorial here.


Featured Activity: The Winter Bird Count

For this activity students access bird count data from online sources (like Project Feederwatch at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology) and analyze data from bird counts conducted over the past 20 years to answer questions like:

  • Has the mix of bird species seen during the winter count in your area changed over the past 20 years?
  • What local or global environmental issues might affect winter bird counts in your area?

How might you answer these question?

Several organizations that have collected bird count data these data sets are available on the internet. These data have been collected largely by members of the general public as part of citizen science initiatives.

Activity Instructions:

  1. Start by going to Project Feederwatch at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. Go to “Explore Data” and then select “Bird Summaries by State or Province”.
  2. Start with the earliest year for which data is available (1988-89) and calculate the average percent of sites visited during the season, starting with the most abundant species. Calculate the average for the second most abundant species. Then the third. Repeat this through the fifth most abundant species.
  3. Take those five species that were most abundant in 1988-89 and calculate the average percent of sites visited for the year 1990-91.
  4. Repeat the calculations at two year intervals, up to the most recent data set.
  5. Plot graphs of year (x-axis) against average percent of sites visited (y-axis) for each of the five species. Do you see any clear trends towards increasing or decreasing frequency of occurrence?
  6. Write a report (400-500 words), in which you discuss your results, present your five graphs, and answer the following questions:

Answer the Following Questions:

  1. Which species appear to have become more common over time?
  2. Which species appear to have become less common?
  3. Can you think of any explanations for the changes?