Environmental Systems and Societies (ESS)


ESS stands for Environmental Systems and Societies, an IB-exclusive subject that counts as either a Group III or Group IV Standard -Level (SL) course. It is by far the least often chosen of the Standard Level science/humanities subjects, with a cohort of about 20 people for the past three years. This is already a step up from the graduating batch of 2012, where only 3 students studied the subject (although the three of them achieved an admirable MSG of 7). The following are some good things to know when deciding whether or not to take ESS:

  1. It is a mix of Geography, Biology, and a little bit more.

The course content covers a range of topics that in general pertain to mankind’s relationship with the natural world. This inter-disciplinary course draws chapters from both biology and geography – students learn about concepts as diverse as human population growth, pollution, evolution, soil chemistry, climate change, environmental value systems, and so on. After the course, you should expect to be far more aware and conscious of the need to preserve the environment and how humanity has irreversibly shaped the natural world.

  1. Despite this, no strong background in Biology and Geography is required.

I have to caveat this by saying that the school does demand Biology (though not Geography) as a prerequisite to taking ESS. However, even if you did not take geography, or had less than stellar grades in secondary school Biology (I fell into both categories), you will still find ESS manageable. This is because the level of understanding of Biology required is very minimal – most of it is confined to the chapter dealing with ecology (for instance, a basic understanding of food chains). While the laboratory practical sessions might require some prior experience with biology, you do not need to be an excellent science student in order to perform them. Moreover, while the course might be easier for those who have taken Geography before (since some of the material overlaps with O-Level or IP Geography), a strong foundation in the subject is not critical in understanding the concepts taught.

  1. It can count as both a Humanity and a Science.

If you are the hard-core scholar of the sciences and maths who feels disenchanted with the humanities and doesn’t feel confident of doing well in a subject as abstract as Economics, or the humanities student who fears that s/he will fail in Chemistry or Physics SL, ESS is the subject for you. It can qualify as either a Group III (Humanities) subject or a Group IV (Sciences) subject. Also, it replaces Biology SL, making it suitable for students who want to continue some degree of study in a Biology-related subject but have no room for it in their HL options.

  1. You do less Practicals than other sciences, but they are harder

The Internally-Assessed Component of ESS comprises of two laboratory reports, both submitted in Year 6. One of them has to be a field-work study, and the other a self-designed laboratory experiment. While this seems fewer than the number of practical reports that have to be submitted by students of other SL sciences, be warned that each IA is a heavy burden – some students have written up to 7000 words or more discussing the results of their single IA! While this is far less work than what HL science students have to complete, it is still a significant burden in comparison to the other SL sciences.

  1. It is an incredibly versatile subject

In summary, ESS offers something for students who fall within the realm of the sciences, the humanities, or somewhere in-between. It allows science students to take a somewhat scientific subject in Group III, and humanities students to take a somewhat socio-cultural course in Group IV. While this might undercut IB’s plans to make you a more holistic human being, at least you get to learn within your comfort zone.

Arthur Lee (6.18) is from the graduating batch of 2015.

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