Welcome to Environmental Systems and Societies!

At the start of the 2016-2017 school year, the International Baccalaureate began offering an updated syllabus for the ESS course (PDF – 3.2MB). I developed a bunch of resources for the ‘old’ pre-2016 syllabus, which are linked at the bottom of this page. I’ll be adding additional resources around the new syllabus systematically, with an anticipated completion date sometime in 2017 or 2018.

Environmental Systems and Societies (ESS) is a college-level introduction to ecology, which overlaps significantly with the IB Geography syllabus. It is science applied to ideas presented in geography, economics, and TOK. We’ll look at the ways different people around the world perceive and respond to various environmental issues, and we’ll dig deeper into their experiences and motivations for taking action (or not taking action). The issues students encounter in ESS are complex and challenging. For many of the questions raised, there are no right answers. Students will never be taught what to think about environmental issues; instead, students will learn about the interdependence of the various components of our planet in order to reach their own conclusions.

ESS covers eight major topics: foundations of the course and its major ideas, ecosystem structure and function, biodiversity, water resources, soil systems and food production, atmospheric science, climate change and energy production, and the interaction between human populations and resource use. We study plants, animals, energy, ecosystems, food systems, carbon and nutrient cycling, cultures…basically anything having anything to do with living organisms and the way they interact with people and the physical environment.

For me, ecology is a fascinating science because it combines biology, chemistry, geography, and sociology in an examination of interdependent planet Earth and our role in those interactions. It’s what I chose to study as an undergraduate student at university (I earned a Bachelor of Science in Resource Conservation and Ecology). Environmental science is also a rapidly-changing field as our knowledge of those interactions becomes more and more detailed. Because of this, current news and events will be an essential component of our program of study. As your teacher, I will guide you through the requirements of the International Baccalaureate syllabus, and I’ll share recent developments in environmental science as often as possible, generally via Twitter @bradleymkremer and #IBESS.

I plan to share my enthusiasm for environmental science with you throughout the journey of discovery that is IB ESS, and it is my hope that you find it as interesting as I do. Enthusiasm and interest, however, do not by themselves make a subject easy. The Diploma Program is demanding, time-consuming, intellectually challenging, and, ultimately, hard. I will do my best to ensure that your experience in my class is a positive, collaborative, mutually-respectful one, and it is my hope that by the time you graduate, I will have somehow helped you exceed your expectations for learning. Remember that my job is to help you understand the required content, help you develop the required skills, and apply the required knowledge in ESS. I can present you with information and show you numerous ways to learn it, but I cannot understand it for you. That is something you must do on your own, and it requires time-management, critical thinking, perseverance, and focus.

Big questions

The following big questions are intended as a guide to shape an overall concept-based approach to the delivery of this subject, and to encourage a holistic perspective on the relationship between human societies and natural systems.

  • Which strengths and weaknesses of the systems approach and of the use of models have been revealed through this topic?
  • To what extent have the solutions emerging from this topic been directed at preventing environmental impacts, limiting the extent of the environmental impacts or restoring systems in which environmental impacts have already occurred?
  • What value systems are at play in the causes and approaches to resolving the issues addressed in this topic?
  • How does your personal value system compare with the others you have encountered in the context of issues raised in this topic?
  • How are the issues addressed in this topic relevant to sustainability or sustainable development?
  • In which ways might the solutions explored in this topic alter your predictions for the state of human societies and the biosphere decades from now?

Practical activities

Practical activities are a required part of the IB ESS course, many of which may be conducted in a laboratory setting. Students should plan to spend a minimum of 20 class hours (teaching hours) engaged in these required activities. A big part of what we’ll do in ESS, though, is science in action, and by that I mean field work! Students enrolled in my ESS course will design, carry out, and evaluate investigations into local environmental attitudes, microclimate differences around campus and field stations, soil chemistry,  biodiversity in tropical forests, invertebrate populations, and the impacts of soil, air, and water pollution in the Dar es Salaam metropolitan area.

 Individual investigation

In addition to the prescribed practical activities, students enrolled in IB ESS will research, design, carry out, and evaluate an individual investigation into a topic of personal interest. The precise subject of the individual investigation is determined by each student, but s/he must work independently and ensure that the chosen subject is clearly linked with the IB ESS syllabus. My role as teacher is to guide students through the various stages of planning, experimentation, and evaluation. As such, a minimum of 10 teaching hours will be dedicated to the individual investigation throughout the 2-year course, most of which will occur during Year 2.

New ESS Syllabus Links (post-2016)

  1. Foundations of environmental systems and societies
  2. Ecosystems and ecology
  3. Biodiversity and conservation
  4. Water and aquatic food production systems and societies
  5. Soil systems and terrestrial food production systems and societies
  6. Atmospheric systems and societies
  7. Climate change and energy production
  8. Human systems and resource use

Old ESS Syllabus Links (2010 through 2015)

  1. Systems and Models: The systems approach to science
  2. The Ecosystem: The structure and function of ecosystems, basic ecology, and measurements in ecology
  3. Human Populations, Carrying Capacity, and Resource Use: How people use soil, water, and energy resources
  4. Conservation and Biodiversity: Designing successful areas for the protection of living organisms
  5. Pollution Management: Outlining the nature and source of various pollutants, as well as strategies for alleviating their impacts on people and the planet
  6. Global Warming: An examination of the mechanisms and perceived controversies of this highly relevant topic
  7. Environmental Value Systems: How people perceive the world, and how those perceptions shape their choices and actions

Once again, welcome to ESS! Let’s get started!