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Using cases and complex problem solving in a large introductory environmental studies class

How can I help my students develop their ability and comfort level in approaching complex problems in environmental studies from a variety of perspectives?

ES101, Forum on the Environment, is a large (150-250 students) introductory environmental studies class typically composed of more than 50 majors and 1st through 5th year students. The majority of students are non-science majors, and many are wary of science at best, hostile to it at worst. While many enroll in the course because of an interest in the environment, equally as many enroll because the need science credits for their Gen Ed requirements.

In 2006 I took over the course and revised it with the goal of working to increase the level of environmental literacy on campus, and helping students increase awareness of environmental issues and the connections between their lives and lifestyle choices and current environmental problems. Sub-goals include increasing the students’ ability to converse about the issues, and teaching them to critically evaluate the reliability of their sources of information. In 2008 we introduced work in small groups and started having the students evaluate cases and consider conflicting viewpoints. During the three years the course has been offered under my administration we have collected ‘what is’ baseline data to understand the level of awareness and conceptions about environmental studies that the students bring. We have found that the students are often a bit ‘fuzzy’ about what constitutes reliable/solid/valuable evidence for assertions versus opinions, that they don’t necessarily have an understanding of the disciplinary ‘way of knowing’ inherent to their chosen major, that they avidly seek ways to address and solve environmental problems, and that they seem to value the way the class introduces them to the complexity of real-world environmental problems.

This project:
In 2009 we will introduce some new elements and one significant change to the course with the goal of explicitly assessing and intervening in student conceptions about the nature of disciplines, research, problems and problem solving.

1. At the beginning of class

A)    Assess individual conceptions about problems, disciplines, and problem solving.
1. Survey with open-ended questions such as – “when you are faced with a new situation or a problem, how do you approach it?” “Why do we do research?” How do people in you major approach research?”

2. Survey to ask for definitions of critical terms: “what is a problem? What is data? What is evidence?”

B)    Pose a baseline scenario and collect individual responses to it. Ask them to articulate the strategy they are using to approach the case.

C)    After assignment into groups, give each group a baseline case to address and ask them to articulate their group process in addressing it.

2. Ongoing – Following instruction in disciplinary perspectives (ways of knowing), the nature of data, problems and research, and an introduction to a problem solving strategy for complex environmental issues:

  • Groups address a series of increasingly complex cases throughout the semester
  • Individuals keep an electronic ‘learning log’ and periodically complete SALG or CLASS surveys

3. Summative/at the end of class:

A) Summative/followup assessment of individual conceptions about problems, disciplines, and problem solving.

B) Final case for individuals and for groups. Ask them to articulate the strategy they are using to approach the case.

C) Summative reflection piece


I am looking for evidence that the student
-    has increased in his/her ability to be reflective (to articulate a personal problem solving approach)
-    is able to view problems from a variety of perspectives (mentions the use of disciplines)
-    can articulate the value of metadisciplinary perspectives in environmental problem solving
-    is readily able to employ and describe a strategy for addressing new situations/problems
-    has a workable definition of problems, evidence, data


Course learning goals

  • Comfort with complexity (shades of gray)
  • Recognition that environment and environmental studies belongs to everyone, affects everyone – and is lifelong, not a thing in the classroom only
  • Awareness of the scope of environmental problems and familiarity with range of env. issues
  • Ability to critically evaluate information and discriminate among types of evidence and data
  • Lessen science-phobia and increase confidence in discourse around env topics
  • Increase sense of self-efficacy among non-science majors in approaching complex issues


Paper that I found useful for ideas and potential methodology:
Anderson, W. L., Mitchell, S. M., & Osgood, M. P. (2008). Guaging the gaps in student problem-solving skills: assessment of individual and group use of problem solving strategies using online discussions. Cell Biology Education-Life Sciences Education, 7, 254-262.