John Mutter

Aug 2020

I was incredibly worried about taking this course because it had the word "Science" in it, and it has been 6 years since my last science course. I thought I would have to spend a ton of time figuring out science concepts. Totally the opposite. I found this course to be so easy. Professor Mutter and Defries are cool. Okay, professors at best but both do some super awesome research so it was nice to fan-girl in their presence. All the information you need to do well is in the lectures, maybe a tiny bit in professor Mutter's very easy-to-read book. Math is minimal! Weekly homework assignments that are straight-forward and graded by the TAs. Three tests instead of a midterm and final situation. One 7-8 page research paper at the end. Graded kindly if you take it seriously. The material itself is super interesting if you're interested in sustainability but it doesn't go as deep as a science course. So if you're looking for depth, not for you, but if you're looking for some breadth and a basic understanding of how basic sustainability ideas work in terms of science, it's a good class. I ultimately got an A, after taking the first month of B grades while I adjusted to how the class was structured.

Dec 2017

This is just a more up to date review pleading with you not to take this course. Everything that was true in the other reviews is still true. This class is incredibly frustrating. The professors don't know the material that well, and the class is very disorganized. Instead of actually exploring concepts, the class just lightly skims over vast topics, which is pretty useless.

Jan 2015

This class was both frustrating and disappointing. The material is painfully easy (in a Fro-Sci like manner). I took it at the same time as Climate (v2100) and there was probably a 60-70% overlap in course material. It was apparent that there was very little interaction between TAs and Professors and that one didn't know what the other was doing. We also were not assigned any work until about halfway through the semester, and then assignments were assigned in rapid fire. We were not given a syllabus at the beginning of the semester with assignment due dates and clear expectations. The TAs didn't hold office hours until the end of the semester (I'm not sure what they did until beginning of November). The entire class felt like chaos. In terms of lecture: Most people did not go consistently. I did and I thought Griffin was a good teacher, but Mutter was extremely difficult to hear (even sitting in the front row). He also seemed to take offense when he was asked to speak up or wear a microphone. This class was a nightmare of an experience. If the material was not dumbed down and incredibly easy, I would have had a much bigger problem. All of this being said, I got an A in the class (I think they curved a lot at the end).

Aug 2014

It's hard to disagree with the previous reviewers – this is an extremely frustrating course. The biggest problem - amongst other things - is that it attempts to skim the surface of a variety of fundamental issues related to Sustainable Development and the Earth's climate system altogether. As a current Sustainable Development major, I found a lot of this aspects of this course to be simplified versions of The Climate System, The Solid Earth System, and The Life System (EESC V2100, V2200, and V2300). There is A LOT of overlap. As part of the graduation requirements for Sustainable Development, there is a two course science requirement, and you are allowed to pick from 6 different two-course sequences. The aforementioned classes are offered as two of these options (V2100-V2200 & V2100-V2300), but they are not required. After taking two of these courses, and Science for Sustainable Development, I strongly believe that Science for Sustainable Development is absolutely unnecessary. It's unnecessary because of both the overlap and the focus on memorizing small details above all else. If you want to do better in this course, I recommend taking some of these science courses beforehand. Both the professors and the TA's were disappointing in the sense that they expressed little to no interest in the well-being of their students. It felt like they were being forced to teach this course, and that they were just going through the motions. It bothers me that Mutter and Defries are both incredibly knowledgable about the topics in this course, but do such a poor job engaging students.

May 2013

First off, the percentage of A-range grades was 22%. Lower than most math, physics, and even engineering courses, and this was for an "intro" class. It would be wrong to call this class "Frontiers 2," because it deceptively covers much of the same material, but the midterm and final is much more comprehensive and it felt more work-intensive. Everything in the review below stands, and most of the homeworks had arbitrary word limits and points taken off for the most inane reasons. I took this class based on the recommendation of a sus dev major, but it's possible when he took it in 2010 it was much different, or at least had better TAs. Many prospective sus dev majors I know were turned off by this class. I know I was. And if you're taking it for the science requirement, stay far, far away.

Dec 2012

This class is basically Frontiers of Science Part II, which isn't a good thing at all. The course is purely lecture based in both the assignments and exams, and it is taught by both Professors Defries and Mutter. I really admired both of them since it is clear that they are knowledgeable in Sustainable Development, though headaches emerged from their contrasting teaching styles. Mutter's quiet and adorable Australian accent really didn't help in keeping us awake, and he had habit of skimming through the material such that pertinent details that were on the problem sets were completely overlooked. At the same time, however, I really appreciated how he uploaded supplementary notes to go with the lectures, which made up for this deficit. As much as I like Defries and the fact that she made up for Mutter's muffled voice with her clear and crisp voice, there were some aspects of her teaching style that really frustrated me, as well. One was her tendency to make concepts more complicated than they really were, especially with her use of horrid examples. The most notable example that comes to mind is her comparison of carbon fluxes/sinks/sources to bank accounts, which she explained for 15 minutes and only served to make the class even more confused. At the same time, however, she is good at clarifying material during office hours. Without a doubt, the biggest problem with this class were the TA's. The TA's and their problem sets are probably the main reason why so many were frustrated with this class; it was to the point where two of my friends dropped the class and even the major as well. The problem sets themselves were simple, but they were vaguely-worded and graded extremely harshly by the TA's to the point where it seemed like they were "desperate" to deduct points. I completely agree with the reviewer who said that it reached the point where the problem sets were more about ascertaining the specificities and standards set by the TA's (which included word limits and conciseness) than about learning and applying the actual content. What angered me the most, however, were the word limits. The TA's kept emphasizing that being concise was best, even as their own written answers for the problem sets exceeded the word limits themselves! I tried getting around this by going to office hours every week, sometimes, for more than one TA; this did not work. In fact, this made it worse since they would each give me vague and often contradicting answers as if they themselves had no idea what was going on. It did not help that they were not prompt in responding to emails or grading assignments. In fact, we received feedback about our essay topics (which had to be specified in a problem set) ONE WEEK before the actual essays were due, even though the problem set was finished weeks before then. This is completely unprofessional and incompetent when considering the fact that there were about 5 TA's for a class that had less than 100 people. When Professor Defries asked the class to give a hand to the TA's in the last lecture, the reception was lukewarm and the students did not bother hiding the hostility that was radiating from their faces.

Dec 2012

This class is taught in a manner similar to Frontiers. The matter overlaps in a few places and the assignments resemble WIAs with an increased emphasis on details. The class covers a wide range of sporadic topics. Breath is emphasized over depth. While the assignments themselves are easy (there are 5 over the course of the semester), the TAs grade them harshly (to a point, where grading seems almost arbitrary.) This can be extremely frustrating. Assignments also had arbitrary word limits on answers. The TAs reduced points if these were even slightly crossed. I found myself spending more time trying to make my answer fit the word limit than actually thinking about the answer.

Nov 2012

This class still needs a lot of refinement on the part of Professors DeFries and Mutter. They are both very knowledgeable on the subject matter, but the course materials, lecture topics, the textbook, and the assignments are sporadic and not entirely comprehensive. I imagine this will all improve as they continue to teach the course. Mutter is rather dry in his monotone lectures, but can have some humorous moments. His pace is on the faster side, and he seems to gloss over important details that later turn up in problem sets and exams. DeFries is in some ways more scattered than Mutter, but her lecture style is much more accessible, which helps with comprehension of the material. DeFries is also particularly good at clarifying material, and making the topics of her lectures very easy to understand. Assignments appeared straightforward, but the grading was, for the most part, very harsh. The midterm and final were not graded as severely. Overall, this is a fine course, and as compared to its counterpart (Challenges of Sus. Dev.), it is far superior.

Feb 2012

This was an easy class that gave a pretty good survey of the science behind "sustainable development." I use quotation marks because I still don't have a clear idea of what Columbia's SusDev program is really about. This class is mostly concerned with environmental sustainability, and it covers things like climate science (greenhouse gases, climate zones, feedback mechanisms), biodiversity, energy basics, and food security. Mutter and DeFries are both decent lecturers, although not mindblowing, and each is very knowledgeable in their fields. I didn't make as much use of them as I could have, but I know other students went to them for help on sustainability projects outside of class (Mutter works on a bamboo bicycle project in Africa, for example). The TA's were just alright. I didn't interact with them much, but at least one of them seemed like he knew his stuff. If you want to know the basics of the science behind environmental issues, I would recommend this class, although there may be better uses of your time. If you're thinking of majoring/concentrating in SusDev, you might want to take this before or at the same time as Intro to SusDev in order to get ahead in the game.

Feb 2011

Professor Mutter really was a good teacher! He had a very low key way about him unless he was excited about some scientific principle. (He reminded me of Bill Nye on chill pills.) He explains things very thoroughly - in fact, if you have any background in environmental science it's very easy to let your mind wander during some of the more boring, technical lectures (such is the nature of science class!) and still grasp the concept entirely. I agree completely with previous reviews about his slides. They're relatively minimal and without a textbook for reference, you really, really do need to attend lecture. It's usually pretty good stuff though. It was one of those classes you didn't mind going to. Oh, and the two professor thing really didn't bother me at all. I actually liked the two perspectives. I totally recommend this class. "He's an economist. He doesn't care if you read the book, he just wants you to buy it." Good stuff, Professor Mutter.

Jan 2011

I love Professor Mutter!!! He is quite possibly the cutest old man ever! Class with him was very interesting. You cannot help but love him and he is very very nice. There is no textbook so each class and all the information comes from a powerpoint. Most of the information in the powerpoint needs to be explained so come midterm/final those who went to class and took good notes were sufficiently better prepared. That being said, they do not take attendance so it is really left up to you how much you want to go to class. Coming from a student who generally does not go to class, I truly benefited a LOT by going to every class and taking notes. The midterm and final are all short answer so you really have to be on top of your stuff.

Jan 2009

Please ignore the earliest reviews for Professor Mutter. I just took a class with him last semester (intro to earth sciences I) and he's definitely worth taking another class with. He did have a tendency to keep everything he said almost identical to the subject matter in the class notes posted online, but I found that more helpful than aggravating. Yes, you do have to take notes, but if you miss a few facts you'll probably be able to find them on the course notes to supplement what you got from class. He went out of his way time and time again to explain potentially challenging concepts to us in ways that were easy for us to understand if what was on the notes wasn't clear enough. If he fumbles around a little, it’s just his way, but it’s obvious that he knows what he’s talking about and he certainly knows how to get that information across to a class. He's not the most fantastic professor I've had so far, but he's part of the reason I decided to major in Earth Science. I highly suggest taking one of his classes.

Feb 2006

I found Professor Mutter to be an excellent instructor and probably the best science instructor I've had at Columbia (in mostly intro courses). The material for the course is difficult and broad, but he threw a lot of info at us in an attempt to show us the principles that united all of it, and he did a pretty good job. The things I learned in that class are still very vivid in my mind, (more vivid than dinosaurs class - Mutter makes the rock cycle more memorable than predatorial dino lineages) and he does a very good job of imparting the significance of issues in class to the survival of life on this planet. So there's that. Lectures were informative and well-put together, in that he gets to the point and then shows how to see the point in data. He also makes it a priority to show not only what scientists know but how they go about knowing it, which helps to make the material more approachable. There will be graphs and data charts that are just too hard to understand in the context of a blurringly fast intro course, and the two-prof method can be a little awkward at times. The tests were very straightforward and reinforced the essentials, and not all that hard. Professor Mutter was very approachable. The inside of the earth is an incredibly hot iron ball with fissures through it like slices in a loaf of bread. This is very important to the earth's magnetism. Still remember that.

Dec 2005

This was the worst course I have ever taken at columbia. It was absurdly difficult, the professors (the course was taught jointly by two profs) apparently never spoke to each other because questions on the midterm and final were literally repeated verbatum; they also "forgot" to include data that was required to compute problems on the takehome problem set, which lead to students trolling the internet for guesstemets. These guys may be brilliant in their field but they have no idea what the hell an intro class is meant to be. DO NOT TAKE THIS CLASS EVER.

Mar 2002

A likable absent-minded professor type, but in no way a good teacher. Mutter spends much of his lectures fumbling with the animations on the projector and repeating in less detail the information he posts on the website. Quizzes are not incredibly difficult, but the mid-term leaves you wondering if you've learned anything at all. Note: This class is team-taught with Charles Langmuir; they each teach half the semester.