Environmental Science Class Studies the Impact of Weather on Human Behavior

June 18, 2009 — While many students learn about the political, religious and social context surrounding the Salem Witch Trials, the environmental conditions are often ignored.

In fact, the Salem Witch Trials took place during the "Little Ice Age," a period when temperatures began cooling. This was particularly troublesome for women suspected of being witches, who were often accused of changing the weather.

University of Virginia students are learning about the historical and social impacts of weather, in addition to the science behind it, in "Man's Atmospheric Environment," a summer course that runs through July 2. David Knight, who holds a master's degree in environmental science and will receive a master's in urban and environmental planning in August, teaches the course.

"My goal is for students to be able to look out the window and explain what they see," he said.

The course, which is designed for non-science majors, takes a broad view of how climatic and atmospheric events impact human behavior. The weather is a common denominator for students of all disciplines. "Everyone is influenced by the weather every day, " Knight said.

He tries to relate his lectures to his students' majors, which include foreign affairs, religious studies and Middle-Eastern studies.

"With each lecture, I try to incorporate some human element, " Knight said, noting the role that cold weather played in the 1986 Challenger space shuttle explosion. The unusually cold weather on the morning of the launch is thought to have contributed to the failure of an O-ring seal in the shuttle's right booster.

Knight also explained how members of different industries take environmental factors into account when planning. Wine grape growers plant on the south side of hills to maximize sun exposure, while ski resorts have slopes on the north side of mountains to minimize snow melt.

He also discusses the current weather and recently published studies in class, with the hope that students will gain an understanding of the science behind the forecast. Based on this background of analyzing weather maps together as a class, many students also choose to participate in an extra-credit forecasting contest in which they make their own daily predictions for rain and temperatures.

The students also debate climate change and global warming to explore the reasoning and perspectives of different players, such as the oil industry and Greenpeace, involved in these hot-button issues.

Knight credits his experience teaching the course for influencing his career plans; he will begin a Ph.D. program in higher education at Penn State in the fall. "U.Va. is great at giving graduate students opportunities to teach summer courses, " said Knight, who has taught the class twice before and served as a teaching assistant several times in spring semesters.

The course is also taught in the spring by environmental sciences professor Bob Davis.

— By Laura Hoffman