Academic journal article The Science Teacher

What's Missing? Finding the Hidden Environmental Science Story in Everyday News

Academic journal article The Science Teacher

What's Missing? Finding the Hidden Environmental Science Story in Everyday News

Article excerpt

What do the Brazilian soybean boom, the oversupply of foreign shrimp in the U.S. market, a repaving project in Boston, Somali pirates on the high seas, and bamboo furniture have in common? Newspaper articles about these and other subjects often fail to cover their hidden environmental impact. After reading many such articles, I realized that I could engage students through the often unrecognized ways that people interact with natural systems.


I assembled a package of news stories (Figure 1, p. 56) to introduce my 12th-grade advanced environmental science students to the following learning goals:

* Many human-centric topics have unstated ecological connections.

Daily life impacts ecological systems.

* People can live more sustainably to reduce their environmental impact.

We explore these learning goals throughout the course, using case studies of scientific research to link daily human life and disrupted ecological function. This activity initiates student reflection on the often unrecognized ways people impact ecological systems and how, sometimes, those systems influence our daily lives. It also prepares students to become more critical consumers of media reports.

Activity instructions

I assign each student a unique article to investigate (Figure 1), and they have one week to research the hidden environmental story or stories and report back to their classmates. Students also submit a two-page analysis of the news story with four sections:

* a short description of the news piece (no more than three sentences),

* an analysis of the missing environmental connection,

* sustainable ways of living that might reduce human environmental impact, and

* a list of sources.

Some articles include more than one environmental link. I encourage students to get to know their articles well, making the environmental story or stories easy to spot. Each student analysis must discuss how the article's events affect unstated environmental issues or vice versa. Students must describe the factors that contribute to the environmental connection in detail. I emphasize that write-ups are the basis of their class presentations and remind them to be as specific as possible; vague descriptions of possible environmental connections will do little to engage their peers. Students must support their hidden stories with evidence from reliable print or online sources (e.g., The New York Times, online newspaper articles that refer to peer-reviewed scientific research, government websites).

The first time I implemented this activity, I wasn't sure students could discover the hidden environmental stories, so I had them submit outlines midway before the analysis due date. This helped the few students who were confused, giving them a sense of security. Most students were motivated by this real-world connection, encountering few problems while researching and analyzing their topics. They were enthusiastic about sharing and learning from their peers.

Article selection

Each time I implement this activity, I update the article selection, replacing about half with more timely selections, even though my students have never complained about articles being out of date. I keep those articles that spark particularly dynamic and thoughtful discussions. Some articles--particularly weather-related pieces, which are always available--are easy to replace with more recent news items. Students also find current weather articles more interesting. Choosing articles can be time-consuming, so I sometimes assign two students to an article. They still complete individual analyses.

The importance of using an example

The best way to ensure the assignment is understood is to work through an exemplar in class. Recently, I asked students to individually read and summarize an article about the economic effects of the Panama Canal expansion on the port of Los Angeles (Smith 2011). …

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