Cape Wind: A Public Policy Debate for the Physical Sciences
Mayer, Shannon, Journal of College Science Teaching
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. Moreover, many of the relevant questions encountered in this debate are applicable to a broad range of topics related to technology development and implementation and may be useful for faculty interested in considering these types of questions in a different context.
Thermal and statistical physics
Thermal and Statistical Physics is a semester-long, upper-division course for physics majors and minors. Typical enrollment is approximately 10 students. The objective of the course is to examine the fundamental principles of thermal physics from both statistical and classic viewpoints and to apply these principles to thermodynamic systems. One unique goal for this course is to provide students with opportunities to draw connections between their developing scientific understanding of thermal physics and applicable societal issues. The types of issues that arise most naturally in thermodynamics relate to the production and use of energy and the environmental impact of thermodynamically related technology. Practical curricula related to these topics are incorporated into the course, supplementing a more traditional presentation of topics, assigned textbook problems, and examinations (Mayer 2006).
Background: Cape Wind
In 2001, the Massachusetts-based company Cape Wind Associates proposed the construction of a 130-turbine, 450-megawatt wind farm on public lands in Nantucket Sound. The 127-meter-high wind-turbine generators would span a 24-square-mile area off Cape Cod (USACE 2004). Nantucket Sound is both a public resource and a cultural landmark, located in an area known for its wealthy and environmentally friendly inhabitants.
Cape Cod currently relies on an oil-fired plant, a coal-fired plant, and a nuclear reactor for its energy (Economist 2003). The wind farm proposed by Cape Wind Associates would provide the area with a source of clean, renewable energy. Based on average wind-speed data, it is anticipated that the wind farm could provide three-quarters of the electricity needs of Cape Cod and the neighboring islands, reducing dependence on imported energy while providing a significant reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions and local air pollution (Economist 2003; Cape Wind Associates 2006). In addition, the Cape Wind project is expected to create up to a thousand jobs in manufacturing, assembly, and construction during the project and approximately 150 permanent local jobs (USACE 2004).
Cape Wind Associates navigated into largely uncharted waters in their proposal for America's first offshore wind farm. Wind power currently accounts for about 0.5% of the United States power grid (Williams 2002). California and Texas lead the nation in energy production from land-based wind farms. Many of these facilities are located on private lands or in largely unpopulated areas, thereby reducing strong public reaction to their development. Moreover, government regulation of public land use by private companies has a long-established history (e.g., logging in national forests). The governance of and regulatory issues surrounding offshore development are less well established and wind-farm technology itself is relatively new. Correspondingly, Cape Wind has become the center of a national debate about the future of offshore wind power.
Prior to receiving approval to begin construction, Cape Wind is required to go through a comprehensive environmental-impact review as mandated by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act (MEPA), and the Cape Cod Commission Regional Policy Plan (CCC). The review includes a study of environmental-impact issues surrounding construction and operation of the site on geology, marine-life, and avian resources; water quality; commercial and recreational fishing; and cultural heritage. The environmental-impact review must also give consideration to alternative sites and technologies. The Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS), released in 2004 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, is largely positive. The executive summary provides an excellent comprehensive outline of the project, details the environmental considerations, and summarizes the findings to date (USACE 2004).
Cape Wind's future is still uncertain. In 2005, U.S. Representative Don Young (R) of Alaska proposed (unsuccessfully) a ban on all wind turbines within one and a half miles of shipping and ferry lanes. The proposal, dubbed the "anti-Cape Wind" bill, would have all but finished the offshore wind industry (Dennehy and Schoetz 2006). In June 2006, Congress reached a compromise agreement that gave the Coast Guard final veto power as well as the authority to mandate reasonable changes for navigational safety concerns. Prior wording in the bill would also have given veto power to the governor of Massachusetts. The compromise is viewed as a tentative victory for Cape Wind Associates. Peter Domenici, chairman of the Senate Energy and National Resources Committee reported, "It gives the Coast Guard and other federal agencies a voice; it gives local and state governments a voice; but it prevents local special interests from torpedoing a reasonable and much-needed energy project in federal waters" (U.S. Senate 2006).
The in-class debate
The Cape Wind debate was incorporated into curriculum related to alternate forms of energy production (e.g., hydrogen fuel cells, geothermal energy). Prior to the debate wind power was discussed in class, giving limited consideration to design issues and energy production capabilities. In preparation for the debate, students were randomly divided into two groups. One group of students represented the interests of Cape Wind; the other group represented the interests of the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound. Students were provided with a few short articles from the popular press regarding the Cape Wind proposal (Chasteen 2004; Economist 2003; Williams 2002) and then given the opportunity to conduct additional research.
In a larger class (15-30 students) students could be further divided into smaller subgroups, each with the responsibility of representing the views of a particular constituency. The DEIS would be a useful resource in selecting subgroups most relevant to the content of a particular course as the list of impacted resources includes marine habitat, transportation and navigation, cultural heritage, recreation, fishing, coastal and freshwater resources, terrestrial ecology, wildlife, and protected species.
In the thermal-physics course the debate took place during one class period, with the instructor serving as the moderator. Each side was given a brief opportunity (approximately 10 minutes) to present its position, with each group determining the format for its presentation (e.g., number of presenters, presentation format). In a class with assigned subgroups, a longer initial presentation time would allow for short position statements from each subgroup.
Following the presentations the floor was opened for debate. Students used persuasive arguments and available data to counter the positions presented by the opposing side. In the thermal and statistical physics course the debate focused primarily on the issues of environmental impact, (pros and cons of wind power, impact on marine life and wildlife), aesthetics (visual impact), and questions of responsibility and guardianship of public lands. In a different course the debate would likely focus on the issues most relevant to the disciplinary content of that course and the general interests of students.
The Cape Wind debate actively engaged students in the consideration of a public-policy issue related to thermal physics. The primary learning goal for this activity was the development of students' ability to construct an argument about a social/environmental issue based on their scientific expertise and available technical data. More generally, I wanted students to gain an appreciation for the critical intersections between science and society. Assessment of student learning during this activity was accomplished through instructor assessment of (1) the group presentations/debate, (2) an individual writing assignment following the debate, and (3) student feedback on the activity.
Students were enthusiastically and passionately involved in the debate. It was rewarding to observe how articulately many students expressed their opinions regarding this complicated issue. I was also encouraged by the ability of many students to integrate information from other disciplines into their arguments. Clear student engagement in the activity is a positive outcome, as research has shown that student engagement enhances student learning (Hake 1998).
Each group of students received a grade for the in-class debate based on the quality of the groups' research and preparation, clarity of presentation, and strength of counterarguments during the debate. In a larger class, individual grades could be assigned to each of the subgroups. Moreover, a portion of the grade could be based on student assessment of the level of contribution of the group members.
To provide students with the opportunity to independently and intentionally reflect on the in-class debate they were given a follow-up assignment to write a concise position paper presenting each side (pro/con) of the issue. The goal of the writing assignment was to have students synthesize the research of their group and articulate a clear summary of the opposing viewpoint. The writing assignment also provided an opportunity to assess student learning on an individual basis. Students received an individual grade on the writing assignment with assessment based on the clarity of their argument, quality of their writing, and their use of scientific data to support their position.
Finally, students were asked to provide feedback, informally as well as in the end-of-the-term course evaluations, regarding the course activities. Student response to the Cape Wind debate and other environment-related course activities were uniformly positive. Students reported that they appreciated the opportunity to bring their scientific knowledge to bear on relevant societal and environment issues. Moreover, they indicated that this component of the course aided them in the making connections between their major and their core liberal-arts courses. One student commented, "This particular course brought together many ideas and concepts that had been presented, but not linked, in my previous five years of physics classes. It was a good 'last course.'" Another said, "I thought the course was great, especially the effort to relate material to our society/politics/ environment." Another student wrote, "Liberal-arts additions to the course (environmental essays) were very effective."
Written comments, coupled with my conversations with students, indicate that the course activities did provide students with the opportunity to think in an intentional way about physics and its relation to society. Students valued the opportunity to investigate these connections, gaining an appreciation for the critical intersection between science and society.
Broader application in the physical and biological sciences and engineering
The wind-power debate provides a framework for the discussion of a wide range of questions related to the personal and societal impacts of technological development. It illustrates the broad range of parties that have a vested interest in the application of a new technology. It also provides a venue for explicit consideration of issues such as how public policy is formulated and who might be the benefactors of a proposed new technology development. Discussion of these types of issues has application in the implementation of any new technological or biomedical advance. Courses that discuss the development of smaller-scale (personal) technology or the application of medical advances could consider a number of similar questions related to the accessibility of new technology. Exploring how factors such as cost, availability, or one's socioeconomic status or national origin might limit access to new technology would be interesting considerations. Students could also discuss possible disadvantages associated with limited access to a new technological or medical advance, and possible societal ramifications of such a deficit.
The crucial questions we face as a society are increasingly multidisciplinary, yet students' educational experiences tend to be primarily discipline specific. Many of the significant challenges we face in the twenty-first century are both scientifically sophisticated and ethically complex, yet science and engineering students have little opportunity to explore questions of ethical or societal import in the context of their discipline. The Cape Wind debate provided students with the opportunity to explore a technology-related public-policy issue in a physical-science course and provided a foundation for consideration of a broader range of socially relevant questions related to science and technology development and implementation.
The questions raised in this type of debate are not likely to be answered conclusively. However, there is inherent value in providing a venue for students to simply ask such questions; it encourages a habit of thought that can subsequently be carried into the engineering workplace, research laboratory, or political arena, as well as into students' personal lives.
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Shannon Mayer (email@example.com) is an associate professor of physics at the University of Portland in Portland, Oregon.…
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Publication information: Article title: Cape Wind: A Public Policy Debate for the Physical Sciences. Contributors: Mayer, Shannon - Author. Journal title: Journal of College Science Teaching. Volume: 36. Issue: 7 Publication date: July-August 2007. Page number: 24. © 2009 National Science Teachers Association. COPYRIGHT 2007 Gale Group.
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