IB Environmental Systems and Societies (ESS) Outline Syllabus

Mr. Lane

Portage Central High School                                   

This document is a simplified version of the course guide and explains the major features of the course and outlines the syllabus and assessment requirements.  More detailed information about the course can be obtained by referring to the guide for this subject, which is available on the subject page of the IB online curriculum centre (OCC) website (http://occ.ibo.org) and can also be purchased from the IB store (http://store.ibo.org).

What do you want from this course?

Only YOU have the power to get things done!

Throughout this course it is up to YOU to take charge of your OWN learning. It’s up to you to:

·         make the most of the course

·         prepare yourself for the exam

·         commit to and complete all class requirements

·         enjoy yourself as you learn how the Earth system works!

Expectations for ESS students:

1.    You will, mostly direct your own learning and use available resources.

2.    You will keep track of your progress.

3.    You will keep your notes in order so that you are able to find any topic at any time.

4.    You will check that your information is correct before you commit it to memory.

5.    You will ask for help when you need it.

6.    You will offer help to others.

7.    You will be on time and prepared to take an active role in class.

By taking charge of your own learning, you will be able to:

·         work in a way that suits YOU

·         work toward your personal goals


IMPORTANT: Students in ESS will be expected to participate intelligently in all lectures, laboratory work, discussions, and activities assigned, as well as to spend the time outside of class that is necessary to absorb and understand the material.  Much of the reading is at a level unfamiliar to a student with only high school level experience of science.  Laboratory activities are similar to those assigned in a college freshman level course, and, as such required more work than high school level labs.  Lectures will be designed to supplement and enhance, NOT to replace, material assigned in reading homework.  This course makes every attempt to follow the suggested times for each topic in the syllabus.  The assessment statements for each topic correspond closely to the External Assessment (EA) at the conclusion of the course.  The EA is given in May.



Students will be assigned reading on every topic of the course, and it is this reading that students are expected to rely upon for much of their comprehension.  They will be expected to read and take notes on their reading most nights a week.  The reading is at college freshman level.  Student will be required to take notes on their reading so as to be prepared for class lecture and discussion.  These notes should be both clear and organized, so as to be readily available for reference during class.   Students will be expected to INDEPENDENTLY complete assessment statements for each reading assignment.  



IB mission statement

The International Baccalaureate aims to develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect. To this end, the organization works with schools, governments and international organizations to develop challenging programs of international education and rigorous assessment.  These programs encourage students across the world to become active, compassionate and lifelong learners who understand that other people, with their differences, can also be right.


IB learner profile

The aim of all IB programs is to develop internationally minded people who, recognizing their common humanity and shared guardianship of the planet, help to create a better and more peaceful world. 

IB learners strive to be:


They develop their natural curiosity.  They acquire the skills necessary to conduct inquiry and research and show independence in learning.  They actively enjoy learning and this love of learning will be sustained throughout their lives.



They explore concepts, ideas and issues that have local and global significance.  In so doing, they acquire in-depth knowledge and develop understanding across a broad and balanced range of disciplines.



They exercise initiative in applying thinking skills critically and creatively to recognize and approach complex problems, and make reasoned, ethical decisions.



They understand and express ideas and information confidently and creatively in more than one language and in a variety of modes of communication.  They work effectively and willingly in collaboration with others.



They act with integrity and honesty, with a strong sense of fairness, justice and respect for the dignity of the individual, groups and communities.  They take responsibility for their own actions and the consequences that accompany them.



They understand and appreciate their own cultures and personal histories, and are open to the perspectives, values and traditions of other individuals and communities.  They are accustomed to seeking and evaluating a range of points of view, and are willing to grow from the experience.



They show empathy, compassion and respect towards the needs and feelings of others.  They have a personal commitment to service, and act to make a positive difference to the lives of others and to the environment.



They approach unfamiliar situations and uncertainty with courage and forethought, and have the independence of spirit to explore new roles, ideas and strategies.  They are brave and articulate in defending their beliefs.



They understand the importance of intellectual, physical and emotional balance to achieve personal well-being for themselves and others.



They give thoughtful consideration to their own learning experience.  They are able to assess and understand their strengths and limitations in order to support their learning and personal development.


IB ESS course intent

The prime intent of this course is to provide students with a coherent perspective of the interrelationships between environmental systems and societies; one that enables them to adopt an informed personal response to the wide range of pressing environmental issues that they will inevitably come to face.  Students’ attention can be constantly drawn to their own relationship with their environment and the significance of choices and decisions that they make in their own lives.  It is intended that students develop a sound understanding of the interrelationships between environmental systems and societies, rather than a purely journalistic appreciation of environmental issues.  The teaching approach therefore needs to be conducive to students evaluating the scientific, ethical and socio-political aspects of issues. 

Note: The environmental systems and societies course is only offered at SL.  There is no HL option available anywhere.


IB ESS and TOK (Theory of Knowledge)

This course offers some excellent opportunities for approaching issues of knowledge in immediate and practical contexts.  The systems approach itself, which is employed throughout the syllabus, raises some interesting points of comparison and contrast with conventional models of the scientific method.  It is essentially holistic rather than reductionist.  While this approach is frequently quantitative in its representation of data, it also addresses the challenge of handling a wide range of qualitative data.  There are many checks and guidelines to ensure objectivity in data handling and interpretation but the standards of objectivity may not always be so rigorously controlled as they are in the purely physical sciences.  Furthermore, as a transdisciplinary subject, the material addressed frequently lies astride the interface of what are perceived as clear subject boundaries.  In exploring and understanding an environmental issue, one must be able to integrate the hard, scientific quantitative “facts” with the qualitative value judgments of politics, sociology and ethics.  All this makes particularly fertile ground for discussions related to theory of knowledge (TOK).


IB mathematical prerequisite requirements

All students should be able to:

·         perform the basic arithmetic functions: addition, subtraction, multiplication and division

·         use simple descriptive statistics: mean, median, mode, range, frequency, percentages, ratios, approximations and reciprocals

·         use standard notation (for example, 3.6 X 106)

·         use direct and inverse proportion

·         interpret frequency data in the form of bar charts, column graphs and histograms, and interpret pie charts

·         understand the significance of the standard deviation of a set of data

·         plot and sketch graphs (with suitable scales and axes)

·         interpret graphs, including the significance of gradients, changes in gradients, intercepts and areas

·         demonstrate sufficient knowledge of probability (for example, in assessing risks in environmental impact).


IB ESS aims

The systems approach provides the core methodology of this course.  It is amplified by other sources, such as economic, historical, cultural, socio-political and scientific, to provide a holistic perspective on environmental issues.


The aims of the environmental systems and societies course are to:


  1. promote understanding of environmental processes at a variety of scales, from local to global
  2. provide a body of knowledge, methodologies and skills that can be used in the analysis of environmental issues at local and global levels
  3. enable students to apply the knowledge, methodologies and skills gained
  4. promote critical awareness of a diversity of cultural perspectives
  5. recognize the extent of which technology plays a role in both causing and solving environmental problems
  6. appreciate the value of local as well as international collaboration in resolving environmental problems
  7. appreciate that environmental issues may be controversial, and may provoke a variety of responses
  8. appreciate that human society is both directly and indirectly linked to the environment at a number of levels and at a variety of scales


IB ESS and the international dimension

Environmental issues are both local and global in their extent.  This course reflects the international element throughout but, where it may be drawn particularly to the attention of the students, this is highlighted alongside some assessment statements (Int.). We all live on one planet Earth, yet use much more than one planet Earth’s worth of resources.  This is obviously not sustainable and this course attempts to discuss the issues surrounding resource use at various scales –from that of the individual (for example, attitudes to recycling) to that of the global community (aims 1,2,6 and 8 in particular).  Internationally, both governmental and non-governmental environmental organizations are considered in the course, from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to Greenpeace and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). Environmental scientists work internationally at all levels.  In this course, students may share data collected with those in other IB Diploma Programme schools on other continents just as professional scientists pool their data.  Students taking this course should thus become more aware of the diversity of cultural perspectives on the environment (aim 4) and appreciate that environmental issues may be controversial as they cross geographical and cultural boundaries (aim 7).


IB ESS assessment objectives

The objectives reflect those parts of the aims that will be assessed.  It is the intention of the environmental systems and societies course that students should achieve the following objectives.


  1. Demonstrate an understanding of information, terminology, concepts, methodologies and skills with regard to environmental issues.
  2. Apply and use information, terminology, concepts, methodologies and skills with regard to environmental issues.
  3. Synthesize, analyze and evaluate research questions, hypotheses, methods and scientific explanations with regard to environmental issues.
  4. Using a holistic approach, make reasoned and balanced judgments using appropriate economic, historical, cultural, socio-political and scientific sources.
  5. Articulate and justify a personal viewpoint on environmental issues with reasoned argument while appreciating alternative viewpoints, including the perceptions of different cultures.
  6. Demonstrate the personal skills of cooperation and responsibility appropriate for effective investigation and problem solving.
  7. Select and demonstrate the appropriate practical and research skills necessary to carry out investigations with due regard precision.


IB ESS assessment objectives in practice (IB TEST & GRADING COMPONENTS)


Assessment objective

(from list above)

Which component addresses this assessment objective?

How is the assessment objective addressed?

Weighting and time


External Assessment:

Paper 1  (Exam)  45 marks

Short-answer and data-based questions

30% -1 hour


External Assessment:

Paper 2  (Exam)  65 marks

Section A: case study

Section B: two structured essay questions (from a choice of four)

50% -2 hours


Internal Assessment 

(class work)        42 marks

Practical work with some activities selected and marked against the internal assessment criteria

20% -32 hours


IB ESS command terms

These command terms indicate the depth of treatment required for a given assessment statement and relate to the course objectives in the “assessment objectives” section.  Objectives 1 and 2 are lower-order skills and objectives 3,4, and 5 relate to higher-ordered skills.  These terms will be used in examination questions, and so it is important that students are familiar with the following definitions.


Objective 1



Give the precise meaning of a word, phrase, concept or physical quantity.


Represent by means of a labeled, accurate diagram or graph, using a pencil.  A ruler (or straight edge) should be used for straight lines.  Diagrams should be drawn to scale.  Graphs should have points correctly plotted (if appropriate) and joined in a straight line or smooth curve.


Add labels to a diagram.


Give a sequence of brief answers with no explanation.


Obtain a value for a quantity.


Give a specific name, value or other brief answer without explanation or calculation.


Objective 2


Add brief notes to a diagram or graph.


Use an idea, equation, principle, theory or law in relation to a given problem or issue.


Obtain a numerical answer showing the relevant stages of working.


Give a detailed account.


Make clear the differences between two or more concepts or items.


Obtain an approximate value.


Provide an answer from a number of possibilities.


Give a brief account of summary in paragraph form.


Objectives 3, 4, and 5



Break down in order to bring out the essential elements or structure.


Give a judgment based on a given statement or result of a calculation.

Compare and contrast

Given an account of similarities and differences between two (or more) items or situations, referring to both (all) of them throughout.


Display information in a diagrammatic or logical form.


Reach a conclusion from the information given.


Manipulate a mathematical relationship to give a new equation or relationship.


Produce a plan, simulation or model.


Obtain the only possible answer.


Offer a considered and balanced review that includes a range of arguments, factors or hypotheses.  Opinions or conclusions should be presented clearly and supported by appropriate evidence.


Make an appraisal by weighing up the strengths and limitations.


Give a detailed account, including reasons or causes.


Give valid reasons or evidence to support an answer or conclusion.


Give an expected result.


Obtain the answer(s) using algebraic and/or numerical methods and/or graphical methods. Provide the equation.


Propose a solution, hypothesis or other possible answer.


IB ESS syllabus outline


Syllabus component

Teaching hours

Topic 1: Systems and models


Topic 2: The ecosystem

2.1   Structure

2.2   Measuring abiotic components of the system

2.3   Measuring biotic components of the system

2.4   Biomes

2.5   Function

2.6   Changes

2.7   Measuring changes in the system









Topic 3: Human population, carrying capacity and resource use

3.1   Population dynamics

3.2   Resources –natural capital

3.3   Energy resources

3.4   The soil system

3.5   Food resources

3.6   Water resources

3.7   Limits to growth

3.8   Environmental demands of human populations










Topic 4: Conservation and biodiversity

4.1   Biodiversity in ecosystems

4.2   Evaluating biodiversity and vulnerability

4.3   Conservation of biodiversity





Topic 5: Pollution management

5.1   Nature of pollution

5.2   Detection and monitoring of pollution

5.3   Approaches to pollution management

5.4   Eutrophication

5.5   Solid domestic waste

5.6   Depletion of stratospheric ozone

5.7   Urban air pollution

5.8   Acid deposition










Topic 6: The issue of global warming


Topic 7: Environmental value systems


Total teaching hours



IB ESS assessment statements

Assessment statements, which are numbered, are expressed in terms of the outcomes that are expected of students at the end of the course.  These are intended to prescribe to examiners what can be assessed by means of the written examinations.  Each one is classified as objective 1,2 or 3 according to the command terms used.  The objective levels are relevant for the examinations and for balance within the syllabus, while the command terms indicate the depth of treatment required for a given assessment statement.


NOTE: Each topic listed above includes assessment statements.  The detailed assessment statements will be given to students at the start of every topic.  They serve as a guide for notes.


IB ESS internal assessment (IA) criteria


Using assessment criteria for internal assessment

For internal assessment, a number of assessment criteria have been identified.  Each assessment criterion has level descriptors describing specific levels of achievement together with an appropriate range of marks.  The level descriptors concentrate on positive achievement, although for the lower levels failure to achieve may be included in the description.


Criteria and aspects

There are four assessment criteria that are used to assess the work of students.


·         Planning –Pl

·         Data collection and processing –DCP

·         Discussion, evaluation and conclusion –DEC

·         Personal skills –PS


The first 3 criteria –planning (PL), data collection and processing (DCP), and discussion, evaluation and conclusion (DEC) are each assessed at least twice.


Personal skills (PS) is assessed summatively, once only, at the end of the course.  It should not be the average achieved over the whole practical scheme of work but should reflect any sustained improvement in performance.


Each of the assessment criteria can be separated into three aspects.  Descriptions are provided to indicate what is expected in order to meet the requirements of a given aspect completely (c) and partially (p).  A description is also given for circumstances in which the requirements are not satisfied, not at all (n).


A “complete” is awarded 2 marks, a “partial” 1 mark and a “not at all” 0 marks.

The maximum mark for each criterion is 6 (representing three “completes”).


            Pl      x 2 = 12

            DCP   x 2 = 12

            DEC   x 2 = 12

            PS      x 1 = 6


This makes a total mark out of 42.


The marks for each of the criteria are added together to determine the final mark out of 42 for the internal assessment component.  This is then scaled by the IB to give a total out of 20%.


General regulations and procedures relating to internal assessment can be found in the Handbook of procedures for the Diploma Programme for the year in which the internal assessment is being submitted.


IB ESS practical work documentation

Details of an individual student’s practical scheme of work (PSOW) are recorded on form ES/PSOW.  In addition, the investigations corresponding to the best two marks achieved by each student when assessed using the three internal assessment criteria (planning, data collection and processing, and discussion, evaluation and conclusion) and the instructions given by the teacher for the investigations must be retained for possible inclusion in the sample work sent to the internal assessment monitor at the end of the year.  SAVE EVERYTHING!



IB academic honesty

District policy for cheating on an exam, quiz, lab or assignment is an immediate zero with no opportunity for make-up or retake.  If you cheat, your parents/guardians will be notified.

Copying others work without giving them credit is plagiarism, and is the worst academic sin that you can commit. In college, it often results in academic probation or expulsion.  In this course, you will know how to use others’ work to appropriately enhance your own.  There are good ways to refer to what others have done and said before you, and we will accomplish this the same way professional scientists do.


Academic honesty has two main factors:

  1. ‘In-text’ citations

You let the reader know you have used a piece of information in your work.

·         Name/date citations as part of your text.


  1. Bibliography

Supply complete details of the sources you have used – so the reader could find them easily to check them or learn more.




Name/date (Harvard method):

“Monkeys prefer ripe bananas to unripe bananas (Taylor, 2006).  According to Pugh (2007), this is due to the extra sugars present in ripe bananas.  Murphy et al (2006) propose that monkeys may have a similar range of tastes to humans.  It has yet been proven whether or not monkeys find it funny when someone slips and falls on a discarded banana skin (Taylor, 2006).”



If you are using the Harvard method (or another name/date method) to cite your source in-text then you must present your bibliography in alphabetical order of the last names of the lead authors of the sources.  All other formatting remains the same:


Murphy, R. et al. 2006. ‘A study into the taste pallet of primates’. Monkey Journal, vol 2, issue 12. Dec 2006. pp 12-15.


Pugh, D. 2007 Banana Web –nutrition page. Association of Bananas. Retrieved June 13, 2007 from www.bananaweb.com/nutrition.htm


Taylor, S. 2006. Monkey Nutrition Handbook, 2nd Edition. Pp198-199. Primate Press, Bandung.






LAST NOTE: By this time in the syllabus, it should be clear that I expect students enrolled in this course to take it seriously and be prepared to work very hard.  I understand that, as high school students, you have many interests, responsibilities, and obligations.  It is therefore important that you take some time now to consider what the course entails, and whether you are prepared to put in the time and energy to be successful.  Because it is an international curriculum, the ESS course seeks to give students a comprehensive knowledge of contemporary environmental science.  Therefore, it includes ethical and moral implications of environmental, political, and economic issues at a global level.  Precise assessment statements related to these areas can be found in the course outline.  If you are your parents have any questions about these or any other topics in the course, feel free to contact me by email, phone or in person.  Please share this outline with your parents/guardians so that they may be aware of the responsibilities you are taking on.  I’m looking forward to spending the coming year with you and helping you explore the environmental world!

IB ESS Announcements 
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    Posted Feb 14, 2018, 7:29 AM by Chris Lane
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