Lesson: I've Got Issues!

Contributed by: Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder

Plastic and trash washed ashore after a storm on the Ocean Beach in San Fransisco.
Students examine environmental issues
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Copyright © Flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/kevinkrejci/4408273247

Summary

This lesson will introduce students to environmental issues. Students will recognize environmental opinions and perspective, which will help them define themselves and others as either preservationists or conservationists. Students also learn about the importance of teamwork in engineering.
This engineering curriculum meets Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

Engineering Connection

When considering an issue, engineers must look at the problem from several points of view. Having the ability to hear and consider multiple opinions on an issue is a valuable — and necessary — engineering trait that facilitates constructive problem solving when designing and building new structures that will affect the environment. Engineers also find it helpful to collect accurate facts and statistics issues and then examine this information before deciding on a definite approach to the problem. Engineering teamwork depends on people having the ability to understand (but not necessarily agree with) each others' viewpoint.

Learning Objectives

After this lesson, students should be able to:

  • Define and identify an environmental issue.
  • Understand that all issues involve multiple perspectives.
  • Explain how collaboration can be used in solving engineering problems.
  • Recognize literature as a record of human experience.

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Educational Standards

Each TeachEngineering lesson or activity is correlated to one or more K-12 science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) educational standards.

All 100,000+ K-12 STEM standards covered in TeachEngineering are collected, maintained and packaged by the Achievement Standards Network (ASN), a project of D2L (www.achievementstandards.org).

In the ASN, standards are hierarchically structured: first by source; e.g., by state; within source by type; e.g., science or mathematics; within type by subtype, then by grade, etc.

  • Obtain and combine information about ways individual communities use science ideas to protect the Earth's resources and environment. (Grade 5) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
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Introduction/Motivation

Ask students if they know what an issue is. Help them reach a definition in their own words. (Answer: Issue is commonly defined as: a topic about which two or more people disagree.) Ask them if they have ever had an issue about something? In order for an issue to exist, there must be a disagreement. Disagreement is not naturally bad, but attempts to resolve the issue are sometimes productive and other times unproductive. Have the class brainstorm a list of issues that are currently relevant to their lives (i.e., bed time, independence, responsibilities, privileges, etc.).

There are usually two ways we make decisions about a topic. The first way to make decisions is to make a judgment about (or label) something or someone. Judgment occurs when a person considers the two opposite ends of a problem, such as good or bad. For example, if you do not want to go to bed when your mother asks you to, you judge that rule as bad, and you may get upset with your mother (and in fact may judge her as unfair, or bad). The second way to make a decision is to evaluate it, or take evaluative action. This is when you consider all parts of the problem and listen to every person's ideas for a solution. You identify what beliefs and information influence each person's opinion of the issue. This way of decision making uses teamwork, or people working together to solve a problem. In our example, evaluation might occur if you consider that the reason your mother wants you to get enough sleep if so that you will be alert for school the next day, yet you want to stay up because you are not tired yet. Through teamwork, a decision is reached: perhaps you go to bed and read for a bit, or you and your mother compromise on an extra 30 minutes before going to bed.

With regard to environmental issues, engineers may consider a problem from many perspectives and thus develop different opinions about the solution to that problem. Engineers also often collect and analyze information to support their opinions. Being able to understand and consider an issue from different perspectives is an important engineering skill that inspires productive and creative problem solving. The ability to understand another person's perspective is also an essential part of engineering teamwork.

Now, brainstorm with the students a list of current environmental issues (recycling, water and air pollution, acid rain, Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository, global warming, etc.).

Lesson Background and Concepts for Teachers

The environmental movement was a cause, or the reasoning for action, established by people concerned with the misuse of the environment to protect the quality of life and future enjoyment of nature through the conservation of natural resources, prevention of pollution and control of land use. The founding ideals of environmentalism were established early on by some of our nation's great leaders and famous authors. For example, Thomas Jefferson, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau were key figures in the environmental cause. Then, in the late 19th century, organized environmentalism began with the conservation movement, which urged the establishment of state and national parks and forests, wildlife refuges and national monuments. Early conservationists included President Theodore Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot (the first professionally trained American forester), and John Muir (founder of the still active Sierra Club). Conservationists organized the National Parks and Conservation Association, the Audubon Society , the Izaak Walton League, and other groups still active today.

In the 1950s and 1960s, other environmental problems (such as, noise and water pollution, solid waste, and renewable energy sources, among others) engaged a broadening number of environmentalists and gave rise to what became known as the "new environmentalism." Public support for these issues culminated in the Earth Day demonstrations of 1970. This new movement had an even broader goal—to preserve life on the planet. The more radical preservation groups believe that continued industrial development is indeed incompatible with environmentalism. Other, more cautious groups — notably Greenpeace — advocated direct action to preserve endangered species and often publicly clashed with opponents. Less aggressive organizations called for sustainable development and the need to balance the preservation of ecosystems with the need to use our natural resources for recreational or economic purposes.

As the environmental movement continued, there was much controversy among people regarding the wise use of versus the protection of the environment. The movement was instrumental in generating extensive legislation, notably the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA), signed into law in 1970, which established an Environmental Protection Agency and a Council on Environmental Quality; the Clean Air Acts of 1970 and 1990; the Water Pollution Control Act, as amended in 1972; other laws regulating noise, pesticides, toxic substances, and ocean dumping; and laws to protect endangered species, wilderness, and wild and scenic rivers. Still to this day, such laws prohibit the initiation of proposed projects without proper assessment of its impact on the environment and provide for pollution research, standard setting, monitoring, and enforcement. Subsequent legislation includes the Safe Drinking Water Act (1974), the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (1976), and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, commonly known as the Superfund Act (1980).

An artist's depiction of numerous improvements that can be made to restored wetlands to enhance the wetlands for benefits to wildlife. Scott Patton, artist.
Figure 1. An artist's rendering of restored wetlands.
copyright
Copyright © Art by Scott Patton, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, 1999. Photo courtesy of USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/.

There is much mandated environmental action required before a project can begin and that continues during the project's construction phase. Understanding these laws, as well as any local environmental issues, is essential knowledge for engineers to possess prior to a project's inception. They must be well informed about the local environmental issues and laws before decisions can be made about the preservation and/or conservation of the surrounding environment.

Decision Making

Environmental issues arise because people have different opinions about topics. The solutions to environmental problems are quite complex. It is not always as simple as making a choice between "right and wrong" or "good and bad." The problems often involve conflict between different groups of people (i.e., in this case, different environmental groups) who view things differently — sometimes extremely so. Their opinions differ for a variety of reasons: needs, values, beliefs, influences, perspective, personal history, etc. Each person has the right to his/her own opinions about things. Some topics inspire many different opinions while others generate only a few ideas.

How does a person ever make a decision when there are many different points of view? There are generally two basic approaches to decision making: judgment or evaluative action.

Judgment involves saying something is desirable or undesirable, beautiful or ugly, good or bad, right or wrong, etc. The emphasis is often on making a decision by considering only the two extremes. They also tend to reinforce the human tendency to label things and then do nothing about them.

Evaluative action is based on analyzing all the alternatives of the issue at hand. It involves putting forward ideas for solving a problem. This often takes more time, but is likely to be more productive than making decisions based on judgment. Persons who engage in evaluative decision making and weigh the various sides of an environmental issue are better able to make informed and responsible decisions. Susan Bosak (in her book Science is...: A source book of fascinating facts, projects, and activities) suggests the following steps as a process for using evaluative action. Engineers may participate at any or all levels:

  1. Understand the situation: get as much information as possible.
  2. Check your feelings: what is your "gut-level" reaction?
  3. Consider any information about the needs, motives or intentions of the people involved.
  4. Define, and write down the conflict.
  5. Write down all the alternatives that you can imagine, even the ones that seem impossible or impractical.
  6. Analyze each alternative, and write down what could happen if you chose it.
  7. Decide which alternative is the most appropriate.
  8. Explain why you consider this choice to be the best one, and why you chose it over the others.
  9. Take action.

Deciding to take action is important. Without action, many situations cannot be effectively resolved, and no progress occurs (in any direction). Whether the issue is pollution prevention or ecosystem, energy or water conservation, decisive action is needed to protect and conserve our natural resources. Engineers must be ready and able to take action to resolve a myriad of environmental challenges. Taking action leads to the need to make well-informed decisions — possible through the evaluative action process. Effective decision making is an important skill in all walks of life and especially for engineers.

Vocabulary/Definitions

cause: The driving reason behind action taken about a belief or perspective.

conservation: The movement to protect the land, plants, water, and animals, but also to use these resources for economic or recreational purposes.

environmentalism: The movement to protect the quality of life and future enjoyment of nature through the conservation of natural resources, prevention of pollution and control of land use.

environmentalist: A person who cares about the earth and our environment.

evaluation: To examine and judge carefully.

issue: A topic about which two or more people disagree.

judgment: An assertion of something believed; an opinion about.

preservation: The movement to preserve the plants, animals and land as close to their original status as possible.

teamwork: Cooperative effort by an entire group or team working towards the same goal.

Associated Activities

  • Issues, Issues Everywhere - Students will learn to identify different opinions related to an issue as well as the things (information, values and beliefs) that influence those opinions. They will use an opinion spectrum to analyze the range of opinions in their classroom on environmental issues.
  • Issues Awareness - Students will conduct a survey to identify the environmental issues that people are concerned about in their community, their country and the world. They will tally and graph the results.
  • Cool Views - Students will learn the meaning of preservation and conservation and identify themselves and others as preservationists or conservationists in relation to specific environmental issues.

Lesson Closure

Ask students to look at the class definition of "issue." Have the activities they completed reinforced the definition? Is there anything they would add to it or anyway in which they would change it? Who can name the two ways we usually make decisions? (Answer: judgment or evaluation) Which way takes other people's opinions into consideration? (Answer: evaluation) What are some things that might influence a person's opinion of an issue? (Possible answers: experiences, needs, beliefs, information available, personal history, etc.) What do we call it when we all work together to come up with a solution to a problem? (Answer: teamwork)

Assessment

Pre-Lesson Assessment

Discussion Question: Solicit, integrate and summarize student responses.

  • Ask the students if they know what an issue is. Help them reach a definition in their own words. (Answer: Issue is commonly defined as a topic about which two or more people disagree.)

Brainstorming: As a class, have the students engage in open discussion. Remind students that in brainstorming, no idea or suggestion is "silly." All ideas should be respectfully heard. Encourage wild ideas and discourage criticism of ideas. Have them raise their hands to respond. Put the lists on the board, and create a copy to give the students.

  • Create a list of issues that are currently relevant to their lives (bed time, independence, responsibilities, privileges, etc.).

Post-Introduction Assessment

Brainstorming: As a class, have the students engage in open discussion. Remind students that in brainstorming, no idea or suggestion is "silly." All ideas should be respectfully heard. Encourage wild ideas and discourage criticism of ideas. Have them raise their hands to respond. Put the lists on the board, and create a copy to give the students.

  • Create a list of environmental issues (recycling, water and air pollution, acid rain, Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository, global warming, etc.). (Note: This list can also be used for the Issue Awareness Activity.)

Lesson Summary Assessment

Role Play: Roll play a debate/court scene in which many sides of an environmental issue are presented. For example, use an oil spill and how to best proceed with the clean up as your topic. Assign roles to several class members (e.g., oil executive, environmentalist, engineering firm specializing in oil clean up, ship captain, etc.). Have students practice their roles before hand and then have a class presentation. Discuss the outcomes of the debate.

Homework

Position Paper: Have students choose an environmental topic from a class list. (Note: students may use the list that was developed in the Post-Introduction Assessment section.) Assign the following written response as homework, but have students brainstorm some answers before leaving class.

  1. Ask students to identify an issue.
  2. Ask students to identify some different perspectives (three of their own and two others) people may have about the issue.
  3. Ask students to describe their opinion about the issue and categorize themselves as either a conservationist or preservationist in relation to this issue.
  4. Ask students to suggest a solution to this environmental problem based on the perspectives they have considered.
  5. Collect and review the students' homework.

Lesson Extension Activities

Current Events – ask students to bring in articles from newspapers, magazines, etc. that discuss environmental issues. Ask them to define the different opinions surrounding the issue. Are some of the opinions from environmental engineers? Discuss the environmental engineer's role. Following are some websites for obtaining current environmental articles:

www.enn.com

www.cnn.com

library.thinkquest.org/26026/Current_Events/current_events_articles.html

www.pollutiononline.com/content/news/search/adv_search.asp

Invite environmental engineers that represent different sides of an issue to come to class and debate that environmental issue.

Have students contact local government officials and survey them about their opinions regarding different environmental issues. (Note: This information may be more readily available — in newspapers, the media, etc. — during election time.)

References

Bosak, Susan V. Science is...: A source book of fascinating facts, projects, and activities, Markham, Ontario: Scholastic Canada Ltd., 1991.
Chandler, Pauline. Environmental Issues (Hand-On Minds-On Science Series): Intermediate, Westminster, California: Teacher Created Materials, Inc., 1994.
Sakamoto Steidl, Kim. Environmental Portraits – People Making a Difference for the Environment, Boulder, CO: Good Apple, Inc., 1993.
www.nrcs.usda.gov (Natural Resources Conservation Service)
photogallery.nrcs.usda.gov/Index.asp (Environmental photos from the Natural Resources Converation Service)
www.encyclopedia.com

Contributors

Amy Kolenbrander; Jessica Todd; Malinda Schaefer Zarske; Janet Yowell

Copyright

© 2005 by Regents of the University of Colorado.

Supporting Program

Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder

Acknowledgements

The contents of this digital library curriculum were developed under a grant from the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE), U.S. Department of Education and National Science Foundation GK-12 grant no. 0338326. However, these contents do not necessarily represent the policies of the Department of Education or National Science Foundation, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.

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