The most pressing science issues facing the human condition today

Through lectures, readings, discussions, and writing, the class will explore such issues as climate change, alternative energy, genetic engineering, emerging infectious diseases, and the overall forecast for the human condition in the next several decades. Students will gain an appreciation of how science can inform policies that will shape our society, and will recognize the limitations of our current knowledge in predicting how modern technology will shape the human condition in the future.

Course goals

By taking this course, students will...

Student learning objectives

By the end of this course, students will be able to...

Course calendar

The calendar below is an example of how the course has been structured in the past. Like most non-studio three-credit classes at Pratt, the course meets for a total of 45 in-class hours— one weekly session of 3 hours for each of 15 weeks.

  • Week 1

    Climate Change I: Detection of Climate Change

    What information would you need to see if climate is indeed changing?

  • Week 2

    Climate Change II: Attribution

    What factors are responsible for recent climate change? And how could we know?

  • Week 3

    Climate Change III: Prediction;
    Introduction to the term paper/project assignment

    How can we attempt to predict the future of climate change? What must we assume?

  • Week 4

    Energy I

    What are the main options for powering the 21st century? How do they work? What are the benefits and shortcomings of each?

  • Week 5

    Energy II;
    Introduction to science information resources


  • Week 6

    Food and Water

    What are the main food and water resource challenges for the future, and how might science work to assure their availability for all? Includes an exploration of the techniques, perceived risks, and potential benefits of genetically modified agriculture.

  • Week 7

    Genetic Engineering

    An exporation of some of the techniques and possiblilites of stem cell therapies, cloning, IVF, and gene editing.

  • Week 8

    Public Health

    Focus will include 21st century infectious and chronic disease, drug resistance, and the relationships between disease and climate change.

  • Week 9

    Space Science


    Multiwavelength astronomy and the possiblity of life elsewhere. An introduction to (some of) the dimensions of 21st century space research.

  • Week 10


    A "new" scientific and technological discipline. Separating hype from potential.

  • Week 11

    Weapons of Mass Destruction

    Chemical, biological and nuclear weapons... and "dirty bombs," too? Exploring the science; Exploring the risks.

  • Week 12

    Pollution and Green Design

    Chemicals in the environment, chemicals inside us. E-waste. Cradle-to-cradle design.

  • Week 13


    Studying the living brain. The "Astonishing Hypothesis" and modern neuroscience.

  • Week 14

    Pseudoscience; Course synthesis and review


    After a course full of examples, what distinguishes real scientific inquiry from pseudoscience?

  • Week 15


Textbooks, readings and materials

Students do not have to purchase any reading material for this course. All required readings will be posted as PDFs or made otherwise accessible through the course website on Pratt's Learning Management System.

Course readings will include book chapters, government reports, articles from peer-reviewed journals (e.g., Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Science, Nature), mass-market science periodicals (e.g. Scientific American), and recent articles in the popular press. To comply with "Fair Use" copyright guidelines, students will need to authenticate with a Pratt userid and password to gain access to readings.

Projects, papers, assignments

Assessment and grading

Final course letter grades are based on 100%–90% for A-range, 89%–80% for B-range, etc.

There are NO opportunities for extra credit.

Course policies


It is absolutely in your best interest to attend all class sessions. Absences and late arrivals/early departures will count against your Participation grade. On the comprehensive Final Exam, you are held responsible for all material covered in the course, regardless of whether you were present.

If you are absent AND if you contact me within a day of your absence, I will provide you with an out-of-class assignment which will be due at the next class meeting. This assignment will require well-researched answers to a series of questions that parallel the lecture and class discussion. Answers will require explicit citation to required articles and supplementary reading, and may require additional research to demonstrate college-level understanding. Timely and satisfactory completion of the out-of-class assignment will give you a chance to earn participation credit up to the full amount for the missed session. If you elect not to complete the out-of-class assignment, you will not earn participation credit. Because it is possible to complete Reading Reports two weeks before the class meets, on-time submission of the Reading Report will still be expected for most absences; exceptions for emergencies may be granted at the discretion of the instructor.


As per Pratt Institute policy: I will only consider granting an incomplete if a student in otherwise good standing within the course can provide a compelling and exceptional reason for the request (e.g., documented unexpected illness, death in the immediate family, etc.) — in writing — before the final exam, and agrees to a contract for completion of all missing material. In no circumstance will incompletes stay on a transcript for more than one semester. An incomplete will automatically change to a grade of "F" if the deadlines and expectations in the contract are not followed.

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