Upper Hudson Dredging Debate
State University of New York at Potsdam
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This exercise is intended to investigate, in detail, a current environmental problem, namely the environmental dredging of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) from the Upper Hudson River. After an introductory lecture into PCBs the students are divided into several stakeholder organizations whose constituency they must represent. They will meet as a team and research their position using material on the web and from the instructor. During the following class period they will present a five minute opening statement on their position related to the dredging issue and then debate the technical, social, and economic issues related to dredging. One final class will be devoted to global issues and environmental policy.
I have used this approach as an activity for high school students, as well as in environmental geology and geochemistry classes at the college.
Skills and concepts that students must have mastered
Generally I give a brief introductory lecture on polychlorinated biphenyls and their environmental properties prior to the debate. Often I do this with a lecture on the status of contaminants in environmental media in Lake Ontario. Students are expected to have a basic understanding of the chemical and physical properties of persistent organic pollutants and the general geography of the Upper Hudson. During their web searches they learn about many related issues including the history of PCB use and contamination, other sites where dredging has been employed, political issues, health issues, and a host of other broader topics such as the transfer of contaminants to high latitudes. I consider the activity an exploration of, and introduction to, current issues.
How the activity is situated in the course
This activity is generally done in the third part of my geochemistry course which covers environmental geochemistry. It can be a stand alone exercise but it is generally part of the progression of topics I try to cover each year. In some instances local events or news reports from other areas can be incorporated. Many of our students live near the Upper Hudson and have an intense interest in the outcome.
Content/concepts goals for this activity
Basically I hope to introduce everyone to a persistent organic pollutant and its properties. In addition, I also hope to provide a basic understanding of how local events can influence global issues (i.e. long-distance transport of contaminants) and how local politics plays a role in environmental decisions.
Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity
To successfully complete this activity the students must research, compile,understand, and present a complex problem. They must also set their personal feelings about the issue aside and collaborate within their group.
Other skills goals for this activity
By the end of the assignment they will write a summary, orally present it, defend their arguments, search the www or other sources (I've got a library within hundreds of PCB-related papers and books) while working in groups.
Description of the activity/assignment
In preparation for the activity a lecture is given on the properties and history of polychlorinated biphenyls and other contaminants. Each student is assigned to one of six groups with an interest in the outcome of the debate. The teams must meet and prepare a position paper on the proposed environmental dredging in the Upper Hudson River. Each team must represent the interests of its assigned constituency. Data and background information is found on the world wide web and from the instructor's collection of related articles. On the day of the debate the student's orally present their position paper (some make posters or powerpoint presentations). After each group has made their opening statement the invited guest senators on the panel (other faculty, myself, interested students, those who were absent for the preparation) ask each group a series of questions related to their stance. After this a general debate begins with detailed and sometimes heated discussions between the groups and the panel. A few moments are saved at the end of class and everyone is allowed to drop their assumed affiliation and speak their mind on what should be done. Before leaving the class is give a series of big picture topics to think about over the weekend and these are discussed during the next class.
Determining whether students have met the goals
It is generally apparent from the debate and position papers who has been an active participant. The groups are generally very small 3-4 members facilitating individual assessment. The material covered is represented proportionally on subsequent exams.
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