Cape Wind: A Public Policy Debate for the Physical Sciences

By Mayer, Shannon | Journal of College Science Teaching, July-August 2007 | Go to article overview

Cape Wind: A Public Policy Debate for the Physical Sciences


Mayer, Shannon, Journal of College Science Teaching


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Since the industrial revolution, technological innovation and the application of basic scientific research have transformed society. Increasingly, critical conversations and legislation regarding national and international public policy have sophisticated scientific underpinnings. It is crucial that we prepare scientists and engineers with an informed scientific worldview and technical expertise to be advisors and participants in these important conversations. This paper describes the use of a debate about a proposed wind farm off the coast of Cape Cod as a platform to explore public-policy issues in a physical-science course. The subject of wind power fits naturally into curriculum related to energy, and is therefore applicable to a broad range of courses found in the disciplines of physics, chemistry, environmental science, and engineering, including general-science courses for nonscience majors.

As science educators, do we maximize our students' potential to be thoughtful, informed citizens, and meaningful contributors to local and national conversations? Beginning in 1985, the American Association for the Advancement of Science's National Council on Science and Technology Education compiled a set of recommendations from leading U.S. scientists, defining science literacy for American K-12 schools. The definition of science literacy developed during this study, published in Science for All Americans (Rutherford 1990), reads:

"Science literacy--which encompasses mathematics and technology as well as the natural and social sciences--has many facets. These include being familiar with the natural world and respecting its unity; being aware of some of the important ways in which mathematics, technology, and the sciences depend upon one another; understanding some of the key concepts and principles of science; having a capacity for scientific ways of thinking; knowing that science, mathematics, and technology are human enterprises, and knowing what that implies about their strengths and limitations; and being able to use scientific knowledge and ways of thinking for personal and social purposes."

These goals reflect the professional opinion of a collection of our nation's leading scientists regarding characteristics of a scientifically literate high school graduate. The final criterion, regarding the use of science for social purposes, should certainly be an even greater priority for university-educated science students and science majors.

In recent years there have been many innovative curriculum-development initiatives aimed at improving the quality of university-level science teaching (for example, Manogue and Krane 2003; Mazur 1999; Crouch and Mazur 2001; Laws 1997; Laws 1991). And while university-level science education has been successful at teaching technical content and promoting the development of analytically based problem-solving skills, it has been much less apt to provide science students with tools to relate scientific knowledge and technical expertise to the social or political arena. In varying measure, some "Science and Society" courses offered for nonscience majors explore connections to societal issues (for example, DeSieno 1997). Courses for nonmajors typically include less technical content and often aim to provide a view of science in the larger context. However, it is much less common to incorporate such discussions into physical-science courses taken by science and engineering majors.

This paper describes a public-policy debate developed for an upper-division thermal-physics course. The wind-power debate described in this paper could be used in a variety of physical-science courses and is suitable for both science majors and general science students. Wind power was selected for a debate in part because it is relatively uncontroversial compared to other alternative energy sources (e.g., nuclear power). As such, the activity illustrates how an issue that may be uncontroversial from the standpoint of the basic science can be very complicated when factors such as environmental impact, public-land usage, and impact on wildlife habitat are incorporated.

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