Natural Sciences I (ERTH 1030)

Fall 2016


   general description and expectations


   exams and grading

   academic integrity/working together

   syllabus and reading assignments

   homework assignments

   fall 2016 calendar

   lecture notes and other information

class meets:    MR 4:00-5:50



instructor:       Prof. E.B. Watson

office: 1C31 Science Ctr.


office hours: by appointment


TA:                  Cazz Wills

office: MRC 316


office hours: Wed. 2-4


Nature and content of the course

This course is the first of a two-semester sequence (ERTH 1030 & ERTH 1040) which together constitute a comprehensive and integrated survey of the natural sciences.  For our purposes, the term "natural sciences" is taken to mean the sciences of the natural world, as set apart from the man-made world.  The course sequence is comprehensive in that it covers all the natural sciences -- biology, chemistry, geology, and physics -- at scales ranging from that of the atom to that of the universe.  The coverage of each discipline cannot, of course, be comprehensive.  The course sequence is integrated in that attempts will be made throughout the year to show connections among sciences generally treated in isolation (such as biology and chemistry, or physics and geology).  Attention will be given to the relevance and usefulness of science and of scientific methodology to humankind.

Natural Sciences I covers elements of Physics, Chemistry, Astronomy and Planetary Science, more or less in that order (see syllabus).  The progression of the course is thus from the most fundamental of sciences -- in which very simple systems are discussed -- to sciences that draw upon the basics to examine progressively more complex systems.

Expected background

Students majoring in a science or engineering field are not allowed to register for Natural Sciences 1.  This means that no prior knowledge of scientific principles or methods will be assumed of the students who do enroll.  All discussions will build from an introduction of principles at a very basic level.  Mathematics, on the other hand, is the universal language of science, so we'll need some of that to communicate our understanding of the way things work.  As Rensselaer undergraduates, students enrolled in the course will generally be comfortable with basic algebra and trigonometry, and in most cases nothing more advanced will be required (although occasional references to calculus may be made as appropriate).

Use of class time and attendance

The class periods (MR 4:00-5:50) will be used for introduction of material, mostly in lecture format (but with dialog encouraged), and will involve liberal use of examples and occasional films.  Class time will also be devoted to presentation of homework assignments, demonstrations, review for exams, and addressing general questions and concerns.  Attendance at regular class periods and recitations is encouraged.  Those who attend class should do so for the purpose of listening to and participating in the discussion.  Other activities -- e.g., using social media, talking, and sleeping (especially if audible) -- will be frowned upon.


The textbook for Natural Sciences I is The Sciences: An Integrated Approach (7th edition) by James Trefil and Robert Hazen.  This fall we will cover a good portion of the material in chapters 1-16 -- essentially the first half of the book.  If you plan on taking Natural Sciences II, the second half of this text will also be useful.



There will be 3 exams during the regular term: September 29, November 3, and December 8; see calendar.  The second and third exams will be cumulative in the following respects: 10% of the point value on the second exam will come from material covered on the first exam, and 20% of the point value on the third exam will come from material covered on the preceding two exams.  The exams will include short-answer (possibly involving simple calculations, multiple-choice and true/false questions.  The will be a penalty for missing an exam without either: 1) discussing the situation in advance with Prof. Watson or; 2) having a medical or family-emergency excuse.


There will be 7 homework assignments during the term (roughly one every two weeks).  Questions and problems will be taken from the text and other sources; their purpose will be to get you to think about material presented in lecture and give you practice in problem-solving.


The three exams will constitute 80% of your course grade.  The exam with the lowest score will be weighted 20%; the other two will be weighted 30% (This allows you to do relatively poorly on one exam and still do well in the course).

The homework will make up the remaining 20% of your grade.

Extra credit.  The third exam will include a section of extra-credit questions on material covered in the course.

Your final letter grade will be determined from the position of your overall score on a "curve" representing the performance of the entire class.  This approach has advantages over strict numerical grade cut-offs, but it also may cause anxiety because you never really know where you stand until the course is over.  Prof. Watson will provide guidance to the class after each exam as to the probable letter grade distribution; students are encouraged to ask where they stand at any time.

To improve the chances of getting the grade you desire...

         Attend the lectures and recitations (and bring your brain as often as possible!).  The lectures will follow the text fairly closely in terms of the material covered, but in many cases we will use alternative approaches designed to strengthen your grasp of difficult concepts.

         Read about topics in the text before they are covered in lecture.  This should help you spend more time listening and less time taking notes, so you may get more out of the lectures.

         Form a study group with a few classmates.  The varying perspectives brought to the course by your fellow students can help a lot in working out problems.  Some individuals tend to be good at math, others (e.g., Architects) are skilled at 3-D visualization.  So get together and form an unbeatable study team!

         Ask questions when you don't understand.  The class will be small and every attempt will be made to create a friendly atmosphere, so please don't hesitate to speak up.  Both Prof. Watson and TA Cazz Wills are receptive meeting one-on-one outside of class, so don't hesitate to contact us be phone or e-mail.

         Pick up graded exams and homework as they become available.  Don't let months pass by without learning how you're doing in the course -- you may find yourself a difficult situation.

         Take advantage of the extra credit opportunities in the third exam.  Additional final-exam type questions will be included; if you review the all the course material in depth, you'll be in a position to improve your grade significantly




Statement regarding ACADEMIC INTEGRITY


Good student-teacher relationships are built on trust.  As a student, you must have confidence that we have made appropriate decisions about the structure and content of this course, and that we will make a strong effort to accommodate the varying needs of a diverse group of students.  Teachers, in turn, must have confidence that the assignments and exams you turn in represent your own work.


The Rensselaer Handbook defines various forms of Academic Dishonesty and procedures for responding to them.  All forms are violations of the trust between students and teachers.  Students should familiarize themselves with the appropriate portion of the Rensselaer Handbook and note that the penalties for plagiarism and other forms of cheating can be quite harsh.  For the purposes of this course (which requires no term paper), cheating includes, but is not limited to, the following:


Working together


Study and review of material with other students in the class is encouraged.  However, no work is to be handed in that is the product of a joint effort.  You may, of course, discuss assigned problems and questions in general terms and seek advice from others about how to proceed, but in the end you must complete each assignment yourself.

SYLLABUS                        Natural Sciences I                        FALL 2016

                         DATE                                    TOPIC




course introduction; jargon, definitions and the nature of science




measurements, data, correlations, proportionality




motion, forces, acceleration (1)




motion, forces, acceleration (2)




laws of motion; momentum; gravitation (1)




laws of motion; momentum; gravitation (2)




work, energy and power




energy and society








heat and energy transfer; thermodynamics




electricity and magnetism




electricity and magnetism




NO CLASS (Prof. Watson away)




waves and vibrations




light; electromagnetic radiation




structure of the atom




matter, phases, mixtures




compounds and chemical change








chemical formulae and equations




water and solutions




the universe, nucleosynthesis and chemistry of the solar system




radioactivity and nuclear reactions




nuclear energy and nuclear waste




mineral resources and "Earth-abundant" strategies




CO2 and climate




Mars, planetary habitability






Homework assignments will be posted here: 7 in all, due at intervals averaging ~2 weeks.

  Homework 1 (due 9/16)      Homework 2 (due 10/3)      Homework 3 (due 10/17)      Homework 4 (due 11/7)      Homework 5 (due 11/28)

Lecture notes

Graphics and other materials used in lectures will be posted here as documents in PDF format.  In general, these will supplement (not duplicate) material in the text, and note-taking will be much easier if you obtain printed copies before class.  In most cases the lecture materials will be posted with ~24 hours lead-time, but occasional late postings may occur (i.e., in the evening before class).  Paper copies generally will not be available, but if you have trouble obtaining the electronic version, please let Prof. Watson know.  It will probably work best to save the files to your own computer rather than printing them directly from this web site.


  1: Course introduction      2: Measurements, etc.      September 8      September 12      September 15      September 22       October 3


  October 3-6      October 6-13       October 13      October 20      October 20-24      October 27      November 7      November 10

  November 14-17      November 17-21      November 21-28      December 1-5


  OLD EXAM 1      OLD EXAM 2      OLD EXAM 3