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Why Study Earth Systems?

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Do you want to be part of the next generation of scientists, analysts, professionals, and citizens who tackle the world's most pressing social-environmental challenges from climate change solutions to sustainable food and water supplies? As an Earth Systems Program Major, Minor,  or Coterm student, you will become skilled in those areas of science, economics, and policy needed to tackle the world’s most pressing social-environmental problems.

Earth Systems is a community

The Earth Earth Systems Program has an active and supportive community of students, faculty, peer advisors, and staff mentors. Event series such as Rooted Words, mentoring, and just spending time together in the student lounge or at the Stanford Educational Farm are what supports the close-knit culture among majors, minors, and coterminal master's students. 

Meet our community

The Earth Systems major program

Learn about human interactions and our planet. Explore our program details below.

The Earth Systems Program is an interdisciplinary environmental science major and coterminal masters program. For students to be effective contributors to solutions for environmental and sustainability challenges, their training and understanding must be both broad and deep.

To this end, Earth Systems students take fundamental courses in ecology, calculus, chemistry, geology, and physics, as well as economics, policy, and statistics. After completing breadth training, they concentrate on advanced work in one of six focus areas: biology, energy, environmental economics and policy, land systems, sustainable food and agriculture, or oceanography and climate. Tracks are designed to support focus and rigor but include flexibility for specialization. Examples of specialized foci have included but are not limited to environment and human health, sustainable agriculture, energy economics, sustainable development, business and the environment, and marine policy. Along with formal course requirements, Earth Systems students complete a 1-unit (270-hour) internship. The internship provides a hands-on academic experience working on a supervised field, laboratory, government, or private sector project.

The Earth Systems Program provides an advising network that includes faculty, staff, and student peer advisers. 

The following is an outline of the sequential topics covered and skills developed in this major.


The Earth Systems Program includes courses that describe the natural functioning of the physical and biological components of the Earth and human activities that interact with these components. Training in fundamentals includes introductory course work in geology, biology, chemistry, physics, and economics. Additional training in course work in single and multivariable calculus, linear algebra, and statistics provides students with skills needed for quantifying environmental problems. Training in statistics is specific to the area of focus: geostatistics, biostatistics, econometrics.

System Interactions

Focus in these courses is on the fundamental interactions among the physical, biological, and human components of the Earth system. Understanding the dynamics between natural variation in and human-imposed influences on the Earth system informs the development of effective solutions to social-environmental challenges.
Earth Systems courses that introduce students to the dynamic and multiple interactions that characterize social-environmental challenges include:

  • EARTHSYS 10    Introduction to Earth Systems    
  • EARTHSYS 111    Biology and Global Change    
  • EARTHSYS 112    Human Society and Environmental Change    

Competence in understanding system-level interactions is critical to development as an Earth Systems thinker, so additional classes that meet this objective are excellent choices as electives.

Choose one of seven academic tracks

To find out more about specific foundation and breadth requirements for each track, select one of the seven areas below.

Skills Development

Students take skills courses that help them to recognize, quantify, describe, communicate, and help solve complex problems that face society. For example, field and laboratory methods can help students to recognize the scope and nature of environmental change. Training in satellite remote sensing and geographic information systems allows students to monitor and analyze large-scale spatial patterns of change. This training is either required or recommended for all tracks.


Success in building workable solutions to environmental problems is linked to the ability to effectively communicate ideas, data, and results. Writing intensive courses (WIM) help students to communicate complex concepts to expert and non-expert audiences. Other Earth Systems courses also focus on effective written and oral communication and are recommended. All Stanford students must complete one WIM course in their major. Earth Systems students can fulfill the WIM requirement by successfully completing one of the following courses:

  • EARTHSYS 200    Environmental Communication in Action: The SAGE Project    
  • EARTHSYS 191    Concepts in Environmental Communication    
  • EARTHSYS 177C    Specialized Writing and Reporting: Environmental Journalism    
  • EARTHSYS 149    Wild Writing    
  • EARTHSYS 135    Podcasting the Anthropocene    

Finding solutions

Effective solutions to environmental problems take into consideration natural processes as well as human needs. Earth Systems emphasizes the importance of interdisciplinary analysis and implementation of workable solutions through:

  • EARTHSYS 210A    Senior Capstone and Reflection OR
    EARTHSYS 210B    Senior Capstone and Reflection
  • EARTHSYS 210P    Earth Systems Capstone Project    
  • EARTHSYS 260    Internship   

Taking another major?

Learn more about earning a Minor in Earth Systems

Learn more

Coterminal master's degrees

Check out the Earth Systems coterminal master's program for graduating Stanford Students.

MS/MA Earth Systems

Field learning 

Peter Vitousek teaching students in Hawaii

Learn more about how the planet works through hands-on field learning on seven continents. Take a course, conduct research, or take a short trip into the Sierra.

Read more about Field Learning