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This archived information is dated to the 2009-10 academic year only and may no longer be current.

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Earth Systems

Director: Robert B. Dunbar

Associate Director, Academics: Julie Kennedy, Senior Lecturer

Associate Director, Administration: Deana Fabbro-Johnston

Committee of the Whole: Nicole Ardoin (School of Education), Kevin Arrigo (Environmental Earth System Science; Earth, Energy and Environmental Sciences), Gregory Asner (Department of Global Ecology, Carnegie Institution), Barbara Block (Biology, Hopkins Marine Station), Carol Boggs (Biology), Alexandre Boucher (Environmental Earth System Science), Margaret Caldwell (Law), Page Chamberlain (Environmental Earth System Science), Gretchen Daily (Biology), Jenna Davis (Civil and Environmental Engineering), Mark Denny (Biology, Hopkins Marine Station), Rodolfo Dirzo (Biology), Robert B. Dunbar (Earth Systems; Environmental Earth System Science), William Durham (Anthropology), Gary Ernst (Geological and Environmental Sciences, emeritus), Walter Falcon (Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies), Scott Fendorf (Environmental Earth System Science), Christopher Field (Department of Global Ecology, Carnegie Institution), Christopher Francis (Environmental Earth System Science), David Freyberg (Civil and Environmental Engineering), Margot Gerritsen (Energy Resources Engineering), Deborah Gordon (Biology), Steven Gorelick (Environmental Earth System Science), Lawrence Goulder (Economics), Elizabeth Hadly (Biology), George Hilley (Geological and Environmental Sciences), David Kennedy (History), Donald Kennedy (Biology, Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, emeritus), Julie Kennedy (Earth Systems; Environmental Earth System Science), Rosemary Knight (Geophysics), Jeffrey Koseff (Civil and Environmental Engineering), Anthony Kovscek (Energy Resources Engineering), Gilbert Masters (Civil and Environmental Engineering), Pamela Matson (Dean, School of Earth Sciences; Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies), Stephen Monismith (Civil and Environmental Engineering), Harold Mooney (Biology), Rosamond Naylor (Environmental Earth System Science; Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies), Stephen Palumbi (Biology, Hopkins Marine Station), Jonathan Payne (Geological and Environmental Sciences), Stephen H. Schneider (Biology; Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies), Gary Schoolnik (Medicine), James Sweeney (Management Science and Engineering), Paul Switzer (Environmental Earth System Science; Statistics), Leif Thomas (Environmental Earth System Science), Barton Thompson (Law), Peter Vitousek (Biology; Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources), Virginia Walbot (Biology), Mark Zoback (Geophysics)

Program Office: Yang and Yamazaki Environment and Energy (Y2E2) Building, Room 131

Mail Code: 94305-4215

Phone: (650) 725-7427

Email: or

Web Site:

Courses offered by the Earth Systems Program are listed under the subject code EARTHSYS on the Stanford Bulletin's ExploreCourses web site.

Mission of the Undergraduate Program in Earth Systems

The Earth Systems Program is an interdisciplinary environmental science major. Students learn about and independently investigate complex environmental problems caused by human activities in interaction with natural changes in the Earth system. Earth Systems majors become skilled in those areas of science, economics, and policy needed to tackle the globe's most pressing environmental problems, becoming part of a generation of scientists, professionals, and citizens who approach and solve problems in a new way: a systematic, interdisciplinary way.

For students to be effective contributors to solutions for such problems, their training and understanding must be both broad and deep. To this end, Earth Systems students take courses in the fundamentals of biology, calculus, chemistry, geology, and physics, as well as economics, policy, and statistics. After completing breadth training, they concentrate on advanced work in one of five focus areas: biology, energy, environmental economics and policy, land management, or oceanography. Tracks are designed to support focus and rigor but include flexibility for specialization. Examples of specialized focus have included but are not limited to environment and human health, sustainable agriculture, energy economics, sustainable development, business and the environment, and marine policy. Along with formal course requirements, Earth Systems students complete a 9-unit (270-hour) internship. The internship provides a hands-on academic experience working on a supervised field, laboratory, government, or private sector project.

The following is an outline of the sequential topics covered and skills developed in this major.

  1. Fundamentals: The Earth Systems Program includes courses that describe the natural workings of the physical and biological components of the Earth as well as courses that describe the human activities that lead to change in the Earth system. Training in fundamentals includes introductory course work in geology, biology, chemistry, physics, and economics. Depending on the Earth Systems track chosen, training may also include introduction to the study of energy systems, microbiology, oceans, or soils.
  2. System Interactions: Focus in these courses is on the fundamental interactions among the physical, biological, and human components of the Earth system. The dynamics of the interplay between natural variation and human-imposed influences must be understood to achieve effective solutions to environmental problems. Earth Systems courses that introduce students to the dynamic and multiple interactions that characterize global change problems include EARTHSYS 10, Introduction to Earth Systems, EARTHSYS 111, Biology and Global Change, and EARTHSYS 112, Human Society and Global Change. Competence in understanding system-level interactions is critical to development as an Earth Systems thinker, so additional classes that meet this objective are excellent choices as electives.
  3. Skills Development: Students take skills courses that help them to recognize, quantify, describe, and help solve complex problems that face society.

Field and laboratory methods can help students to recognize the scope and nature of environmental change. For example, training in satellite remote sensing and geographic information systems allows students to monitor and analyze large-scale spatial patterns of change. This training is either required or recommended for all tracks. EARTHSYS 189, Field Studies in Earth Systems, is also recommended.

Quantification of environmental problems requires training in single and multivariable calculus, linear algebra, and statistics. Training in statistics is specific to the area of focus: geostatistics, biostatistics, econometrics.

Success in building workable solutions to environmental problems is linked to the ability to effectively communicate ideas, data, and results. Writing intensive courses (WIM) help students to communicate complex concepts to expert and non-expert audiences. All Stanford students must complete one WIM course in their major. The Earth Systems WIM course is EARTHSYS 260. Other Earth Systems courses also focus on effective written and oral communication and are recommended.

Effective solutions to environmental problems take into consideration natural processes as well as human needs. Earth Systems emphasizes the importance of interdisciplinary analysis and implementation of workable solutions through the required 9-unit internship, EARTHSYS 260, and knowledge synthesis in EARTHSYS 210, Senior Seminar.

A comprehensive list of environmental courses, as well as advice on those that focus on problem solving, is available in the program office.

The Earth Systems Program provides an advising network that includes faculty, staff, and student peer advisers.

Learning Outcomes

The department expects undergraduate majors in the program to be able to demonstrate the following learning outcomes. These learning outcomes are used in evaluating students and the department's undergraduate program. Students are expected to:

  1. demonstrate knowledge of foundational skills and concepts relevant to interdisciplinary study of the environment.
  2. analyze environmental problems at the interface of natural and human systems in an interdisciplinary fashion.
  3. demonstrate the ability to communicate complex concepts and data to expert and non-expert audiences.
  4. independently and as part of a team apply relevant science, economics, engineering, and policy to problem analysis and proposed solutions.

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