Teaching environmental topics can bring out unexpected responses in your students. For example, when you cover the topic of Earth's resources in a physical geology course, you may find previously mild-mannered students become impassioned about the topics, or otherwise attentive and hard-working pupils dig in their heels and resist the information. Doing rock and mineral identification may elicit little emotional response from most students. But when the subject matter seems to confront one's personal lifestyle, political leanings or economic situation, then the topic may be perceived in a very different light.
What are some strategies to teach environmental topics, particularly controversial ones, without coming up against affective barriers to learning? How can you help students learn the science and the policy without getting weighed down by feeling guilty or defiant?
- Teach the science first
Even though most environmental topics are a blend of science, policy, economics and human impacts, it may be helpful to separate these into three distinct sub-topics. First, present the science objectively, using data and relevant examples. Next, discuss the policy and economic issues related to this topic. Once those subjects are covered thoroughly, students will often be interested to learn what their own personal stake may be. By setting the stage deliberately, students are more likely to be receptive to the information and are less likely to get turned off.
- Teach with data
Statements like "species are going extinct at an alarming rate, " "wetlands are being turned into strip malls, " and "the climate is getting hotter"are emotional statements (even if true) and will elicit emotional responses in your students. Rather than risk sounding like an alarmist, let the data speak for itself. Have students work through data sets, and they can discover for themselves the rate and extent of environmental change. In some cases, they still may end up being surprised or emotional, but it's because they reached their own conclusion, not because you told them to be alarmed. [Schweizer and Kelly, 2005]
- Use active learning techniques
Photo by Stuart Van Greuningen, Idaho Energy DivisionStudents learn better when the can learn it for themselves, and this is especially true for topics that are potential turn-offs for students. Environmental issues lend themselves to teaching techniques like using local examples, gathering data from the field, using role-playing or debates, or participating in environmental projects. [Iozzi, 1989], [Schweizer and Kelly, 2005]
- Controversy, ambiguity, and topics with incomplete or missing evidence can be used constructively (but need to be introduced judiciously)
Engaging controversial topics, or topics that have no clear-cut answers, can create an environment where students are motivated to learn more out of curiosity or imminent need [e.g. Edelson, 2001 ]. Students can be encouraged to review what is known, to identify what additional information is needed to solve the problem, and to continue the search to find and critically examine new information. Learning goals for students can include development of "scientific habits of the mind" [AAAS, 1989 ], to be critical consumers of information, and to be able to create, present and rebut arguments based on evidence. A supportive environment needs to be created to encourage scholarly and open review of the arguments and ideas, and provisions need to be put in place to prevent interpersonal (ad hominem) attacks in reporting results in class activities.
- It's not all doom and gloom
Certain environmental topics can be downright depressing. However, there are also many environmental success stories. Strive for a balance in which students do not feel overwhelmed by a preponderance of "bad news." After all, environmental successes provide relevant examples of how problems can be overcome.
- Clearly define your role and your teaching approach
There are many ways to teach environmental issues. Before jumping into your curriculum, consider what your desired outcomes are and what approach you will take. Is your intent to teach just the relevant scientific processes, to promote an awareness of environmental issues, or to lead students toward a shift in their own environmental behavior? In the classroom, do you assume the role of environmental guardian, a free-marketeer, or a devil's advocate? There are advantages to various approaches, but it's important to consciously consider what your goals are and how you can best achieve them. [Corney, 1998]
- Lead by example, but don't preach
We all know the stereotype that college professors drive tiny, efficient cars and live an eco-minded lifestyle. Regardless of whether or not this describes you, it's best to avoid talking down to your students for their own personal choices. Preaching to the class about what's "good" and what's "bad" will likely have the opposite effect than you intended; it can be a major turn-off for students. If your goal is to promote environmentally-favorable behavior in your students, consider a hands-on project that will challenge students to consider the environmental impacts of their own actions. [Kirk and Thomas, 2003]