Social Science Meets Physical Science

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Jessica Owley, Environmental Science, Policy and Management

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2004

As a GSI for ESPM 10 (Environmental Issues), I often face the challenge of integrating social and economic concerns with the traditional sciences of chemistry, physics, and biology. Lectures introduce students to various environmental problems concentrating on the causes and mechanics of the problem. Because of the broad range of environmental problems and causes, the course incorporates elements of many disciplines. The professor and guest lecturers explain complex environmental problems to the students using traditional scientific tools and languages.

My challenge in discussion section is to tie these facts and equations to the social side. Environmental problems are social and economic problems. The challenge of tying science and social science is well known and has always been difficult. Students tend to like the more factual basic science side of the equation. They want to see the numbers and the graphs. They want the lists and data.

For example, for our section on global climate change, an atmospheric chemist comes to the class to discuss the chemical reactions that lead to environmental problems. The professor later ties the topic together by presenting the origin of the pollutants and the biological problems associated with them. However, a discussion of global warming that only discusses the chemistry and subsequent impacts on biology and geology would miss larger elements of the issue such as the impact on disadvantaged peoples and issues of fairness and justice.

Because of the inherent challenge of integrating so many ideas together and the wide variety of background in the class, I have developed a variety of teaching techniques and lesson plans over the past years to help students see how these elements tie together.

Most helpful and effective have been role-play activities. Students are put in different situations and given a scenario or a description of their parts. Through a series of directed questions and staged debates, the students begin to see the challenges that people face due to environmental problems. I strive to give the students different types of roles each time. I put together a detailed sheet of my students’ backgrounds. I give the art majors the role of the economists and self-identified environmentalists the role of the developers. I also keep close track of how each week turns out. This allows me to turn the activity on its head the next week. If we end up with a utilitarian perspective dominating one week, I spend the next week focusing on deontological principles and ideas of justice. It is important to be flexible when running discussions like these. If one line of inquiry does not work, I challenge them with harder questions. I most often end up in the role of devil’s advocate. This has led to interesting discussion sections where the same group of students is calling for an end to all pesticide use one week and arguing for an increase in genetically modified crops the next week.

Most important has been the summarizing discussions that we have at the end of each week. As a group, we review the scientific background and compare it to the emotional discussion that ensued. We discuss how we feel about the conclusions and the roles. Students talk about both the difficulty of playing their roles and whether or not they were surprised at the outcome.