News Archive

posted 12/03/01

Environmental Sustainability: Perspectives on the World
E-seminar provides a new learning experience that crosses departmental lines.

By Jennifer Freeman

"Figuring out what’s happening to the planet and what to do about it is a pretty complicated task," says Marc Levy, Associate Director for Science Applications at CIESIN, the Center for International Earth Science Information Network, a unit of the Columbia Earth Institute, by way of explaining why CIESIN decided to create an online seminar on the topic of environmental sustainability. "No one department will cover all the problems of planetary sustainability, but it turns out that Columbia has an interesting bunch of people working on this problem from several angles."

The e-seminar format seemed to Levy a good venue for a course that crosses departmental boundaries to provide an exciting educational experience on sustainability, a complex but timely topic. At CIESIN, Levy has also been involved in the development of online mapping tools and an Environmental Sustainability Index. These online tools "were a natural fit" for an e-seminar," according to Levy. "Putting spatial data on the web is something we’ve been working hard on at CIESIN," he says.

A person taking the Environmental Sustainability e-seminar will be guided through a series of "modules" starting with an introduction to the concept of environmental sustainability, moving through lectures from Columbia scientists on topics ranging from El Niño and the Peruvian Fishing Community to Human Impacts on the Arctic Environment, and ending with a wrap-up of what the various topics teach us about sustainability as a whole.

In conjunction with each lecture, activities such as CIESIN’s Environmental Sustainability Index Mapping Tool (developed by CIESIN researcher Maarten Tromp) provide students with opportunities to see how scientists and decision-makers actually assess sustainability, and also to deepen their own understanding of the complex factors relating human interactions with the environment. Online discussion boards provide opportunities for dialogue with instructors and other students. Electronic links and an optional reading list give students an opportunity to expand on the content of the course at their own pace.

This is an opportune time to be exploring questions of sustainability, according to Levy. "The World Summit on Sustainable Development will take place next September [2002] in Johannesburg, on the 10th anniversary of the Rio Earth Summit," he said. "Which sustainability issues ought to receive the highest priority and what types of solutions are most promising will be hotly debated. The e-seminar provides a good introduction to these issues from the perspective of cutting-edge research being done by Columbia faculty."

Columbia Interactive describes electronic seminars as three- to five-hour learning experiences combining multimedia, interactivity, and collaborative discussion to create a new kind of learning experience. The sustainability e-seminar, like all e-seminars offered through Columbia Interactive, is free to Columbia students, faculty, and staff. It is available to the public for a $45 fee. The direct link to the seminar is:
The course is also available at, a leading site for online learning experiences, co-founded by Columbia.

Columbia Interactive has been working with Columbia faculty to create e-seminars throughout the university. Columbia Earth Institute scientists currently offer three e-seminars: In addition to Environmental Sustainability: Perspectives on the World, there is Earth’s Variable Climate, an exploration of the drivers of climate change led by Joe Ortiz of Columbia’s Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory. Lamont Seismologist Art Lerner-Lam has created an e-seminar called How Predictable are Natural Disasters?, which explores ways of assessing hazards and risk. All three e-seminars can be found in the Science section of the Columbia Interactive e-seminar Website.

Like all creators of the new Columbia e-seminars, Marc Levy is deeply involved in his field. At CIESIN, Levy oversees programs on environmental sustainability, information tools for monitoring international environmental agreements, and integration of natural and social science information on the environment. Levy is also a Project Scientist for CIESIN's Socioeconomic Data and Applications Center (SEDAC), which is a primary liaison between NASA's Earth Observing System and the social science and policy-making communities. Levy has taught political science and international environmental policy since 1980 at Harvard University, Princeton University, Williams College, and Columbia University.

Other links/images:
Images of Marc Levy, the ESI mapping tool, and/or the module diagram from the seminar site.


About The Earth Institute
The Earth Institute at Columbia University is the world's leading academic center for the integrated study of Earth, its environment and society. The Earth Institute builds upon excellence in the core disciplines — earth sciences, biological sciences, engineering sciences, social sciences and health sciences — and stresses cross-disciplinary approaches to complex problems. Through research, training and global partnerships, it mobilizes science and technology to advance sustainable development, while placing special emphasis on the needs of the world's poor. For more information, visit