Academic journal article Science Educator

Discerning the Difference between "Feel Good" and "Real Good": Teaching the Complexity of Sustainable Development

Academic journal article Science Educator

Discerning the Difference between "Feel Good" and "Real Good": Teaching the Complexity of Sustainable Development

Article excerpt


Environmental issues can serve as a marvelous framework for high-level student analysis of critical scientific and social concerns. We describe a series of activities and discussions that motivate students to explore environmentalism, sustainable development, carbon offsets, and related ideas with an engaged learning format that helps students to reveal the gray areas that exist when deciding upon social policy that is based on the impact of science. We summarize research supporting engaged learning in STEM education, and provide a successful example of this changing educational paradigm. Although we present data to show that students value the paradigm, the paper is intended to highlight the instructional, rather than evaluative, aspects of the model.

Keywords: environmentalism, sustainable development, carbon offsets, STEM, higher order thinking skills


We live in the geological epoch called the Holocene, meaning "whole new," encompassing much of the history of humankind as a community over the past 11,700 years. Jan Zalasiewicz, a stratigrapher - he studies rock layers - suggested we change the name to the Anthropocene epoch (from the Greek "anthropos," meaning "human being"), recognizing the impact of human activities on the Earth (Kolbert, 2013), The world's 7.2 billion people make individual and social choices that affect all of us, not just in our local ecosystem, but in the worldwide environment, with the possibility of a long-term human future if we make good choices, or dire consequences for poor choices.

To increase the likelihood that the future generations will exist and, perhaps, thrive, "environmentalism" has become a guiding principle for many of us, though far too often in the K-16 classroom and beyond, we seek easy interpretations of this complex principle. Easy interpretations suggest it is tantamount to a sin to drive a car with poor gas mileage, buy a product with a large "carbon footprint" that generates an excess of Greenhouse Gases, or use Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), including vegetables and meat. The way out of this sinful life would seem to be simple - students should make "green" lifestyle choices and support companies that do so. Choose paper, not plastic, or even better, reusable bags (though these are most often made of plastics). Pay indulgences, as in the religious sense, to offset your "carbon footprint." Do these things and lead a "sustainable lifestyle." A leads to B. Case closed. If only life were that simple.

We intended these first 260 words to be provocative because the subject matter is so important for our students and us, and so often misunderstood, largely by oversimplification. We have already mentioned six terms, environmentalism, carbon footprint, Greenhouse Gases, carbon offsets, Genetically Modified Organisms, and sustainable lifestyle (related term: Sustainable Development) that are quickly becoming part of society's vernacular, yet the meaning of each, and the choices we make related to it, is often complex and nuanced. Our goals in this paper are to:

* define and clarify several current terms related to "environmentalism" that are important for the science and societal literacy of our K-16 students;

* outline the debates related to individual and social environmental choices;

* discuss several activities, both hands-on and discussion-based, that compel our students to grapple with these difficult ideas.

Most of the class discussions and activities we present are best applied at the high school and college levels, though the background is useful for teachers at all levels. A recent commentary by Kelter and co-authors in Science Educator considered related activities for kindergarten and first-grade students (Molitor, Ryall, & Kelter, 2013).

The Educational Premise: Engaged Learning For Environmental Issues

Engaged learning places students into a challenge-based environment where they have to solve real problems with real outcomes. …

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