Ruth Defries

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.

Jul 2020

I strongly believe this professor should not be teaching at Columbia unless she revises some of her views on conservation. She taught a first-year seminar led by Jill Shapiro where she basically told us how the non-urban Indian population (in India) is encroaching on the tiger's habitat. And she, as a mother knows FOR SURE that 'those children' and 'indigenous people' would fare better in towns, with vaccines and proper living conditions. All this while telling us that transportation infrastructure needs are far more important than 'these people who are using a few trees and "deforesting" in order to raise cattle and that new trains NEED to cut through the forest (the tiger's habitat) for them to be efficient. Idk if she's getting paid by anyone in India to say this stuff, but considering historical events in India and America (HELLO YELLOWSTONE) this is inadmissible and truly offensive. I challenged her in class and then so did one or two other students (one was a Native American) and her response was "yes, like I said, this is a complicated issue". We pushed back again, and this was her response, over and over again. No, Ruth, it's not complicated, stop encroaching and colonizing under the umbrella of conservation. I'm an older student and didn't feel terrible challenging her views, and she did let us challenge her, but imagine if this seminar was filled with all first-year 18 year olds who knew little about conservation. (her sweet demeanor contrasted with her words serve as an intense cognitive dissonance). She's a very nice person, but this kind of stuff cannot be taught at an ivy league institution in the 21st century. The rest of the faculty in the seminar were excellent!

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.

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.