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This archived information is dated to the 2008-09 academic year only and may no longer be current.

For currently applicable policies and information, see the current Stanford Bulletin.

Earth Systems

Director: Robert B. Dunbar

Associate Director, Academics: Julie Kennedy, Senior Lecturer

Associate Director, Administration: Deana Fabbro-Johnston

Committee of the Whole: Kevin Arrigo (Environmental Earth System Science, Earth, Energy and Environmental Sciences), Gregory Asner (Department of Global Ecology, Carnegie Institution), Carol Boggs (Biology), Margaret Caldwell (Law), Page Chamberlain (Environmental Earth System Science), Gretchen Daily (Biology, Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources), Mark Denny (Biology, Hopkins Marine Station), Rodolfo Dirzo (Biology), Robert B. Dunbar (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 (Geological and Environmental Sciences), David Freyberg (Civil and Environmental Engineering), Margot Gerritsen (Energy Resources Engineering), Deborah Gordon (Biology), Lawrence Goulder (Economics), Elizabeth Hadly (Biology), George Hilley (Geological and Environmental Sciences), David Howell (Earth Systems), David Kennedy (History), Donald Kennedy (Biology, Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, emeritus), Julie Kennedy (Earth Systems), 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 (Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies), Franklin M. Orr, Jr. (Global Climate and Energy Project, Energy Resources Engineering), 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), Barton Thompson (Law), David Victor (Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies), Peter Vitousek (Biology), Virginia Walbot (Biology), Mark Zoback (Geophysics)

Program Offices: Yang and Yamazaki (Y2E2), Room 131

Mail Code: 94305-4215

Phone: (650) 725-7427


Web Site:

Courses offered by the Earth Systems Program have the subject code EARTHSYS, and are listed in the "Earth Systems [EARTHSYS] Courses" section of this bulletin.

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 in computer science, economics and 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. 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 of their choice.

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

  1. The fundamental components of the Earth Systems Program help students understand current environmental problems against the backdrop of natural change through introductory course work in geology, biology, and economics. Depending on the Earth Systems track chosen, training may also include introductions to the study of energy systems, microbiology, oceans, or soils. Students find that many programs and departments at Stanford offer courses that approach the role that humans play in affecting these systems. Students are encouraged to come to the Earth Systems office for course selection advice and to pick up a current list of environmental courses at Stanford.
  2. Focus 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 is 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, and two core courses concerning, respectively, the biogeosphere and the anthrosphere: EARTHSYS 111, Biology and Global Change, and EARTHSYS 112, Environmental Economics and Policy.

    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. Development of skills to recognize, quantify, and report change in the environment: key analytical and computational tools and measurement systems are used for insight into global and regional environmental change, and in the development of solutions.

    Required foundation and breadth classes and track classes: students build skills in the student's ability to recognize, describe, quantify, and help solve complex problems that face society. For example, training in satellite remote sensing and geographic information systems is either required or recommended for all tracks. Quantification of environmental problems requiring training in calculus, linear algebra, chemistry, physics, programming, and statistics are required of majors. Specialized training, such as in laboratory or field methods, is recommended.

    Workable solutions to environmental problems require the ability to effectively communicate ideas and results. Writing intensive courses (WIM) help students to communicate complex concepts to expert and non-expert audiences. Stanford requires that each student complete one WIM course in the major. The WIM requirement is met through completion of EARTHSYS 195, Effectively Communicating Environmental Concepts. Other Earth Systems courses also focus on effective written and oral communication.

  4. Work to design solutions to environmental problems that take into consideration natural processes as well as human needs: human needs must be met in sustainable ways that focus on ecosystem health, human prosperity, and long-term effectiveness.

A comprehensive list of environmental courses, and advice on those that focus on problem solving, is available in the program office. Students can also review the quarterly Time Schedule for solution-based courses. Among others, the following departments and programs may provide subject areas that are a useful guide: Anthropology, Biology, Civil and Environmental Engineering, Economics, Environmental Earth System Science, Geological and Environmental Sciences, Geophysics, Human Biology, International Policy Studies, International Relations, Law, Energy Resources Engineering, Political Science, Public Policy, and Urban Studies. Earth Systems emphasizes the importance of workable solutions through a required 9-unit internship, knowledge synthesis in the senior seminar, an optional upper division course on environmental problem solving, or an honors project. The Earth Systems Program provides an advising network that includes faculty, staff, and student peer advisers.

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