Interpreting Urban Environmental Data

In the polarized political world that confronts students today, models of climate change are contested, protections against environmental pollutants are being loosened, and a suspicion of scientific claims and expertise is becoming more common. In such a contested and fraught arena it is essential to offer our students historically informed training in how to understand the source data that informs us about human impact on past environments, including evidence for natural variability, landscape change, and the record of unregulated pollutants.

Also of vital importance is an understanding of how data are managed, stored and disseminated, as well as of how they are enrolled into various narratives and models of climate change. This course is designed to take students from hands-on environmental and archaeological sampling and interpretation through to the analysis of big palaeoecological datasets in large data archives such as Neotoma and the Global Charcoal Database within Past Global Changes (PAGES). Students will learn how different disciplines generate, analyze, compare, share, and access data, and by the end of the course will better understand the uncertainties and ambiguities inherent in such data.

The course acts as a pilot initiative as part of a broader rethinking of archaeology at Columbia University. Faculty are working towards developing a more integrated archaeology program that brings together expertise and resources from different departments and which can be offered at the MA level as well as better serving our undergraduate population. The course also provides training in historical terrestrial palaeoecology for earth and environmental sciences students, and aims to cultivate an informed historical consciousness and an understanding of the wider repercussions of their work outside the field of scientific research and reporting.

About the Collaboratory Fellows Fund:
Technology and massive data are reshaping society in profound ways. To be effective, the leaders of tomorrow will need to understand how these transformations are impacting their professions, now and in the future. The Collaboratory Fellows Fund is developing the coursework to allow students to master the technical skills and cultivate the creative thinking to confront the unique challenges in their chosen careers.