Using Debates to Engage Students in Sustainability Controversies and Conundrums

Robert J. Turner, Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences, University of Washington Bothell
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This page first made public: Oct 9, 2012


A primary feature of my Water and Sustainability course is a series of 10 debates on controversial sustainability topics. Each student in the course participates in one of the debates. There are two essays that each student must submit associated with the debate. The first one, due on the day of the debate, requires students to articulate and support their response to the question of their upcoming debate in the format of an op-ed piece to a newspaper. The second essay requires them to reflect on how preparing for the debate expanded their thinking on the general topic and specific debate question. They are also asked to provide a critique of their debate research and performance relative to the course learning objectives.

The questions around which the 10 debates revolved in 2011 are listed below in the order we tackled them in the course. All the questions were chosen to highlight specific controversies in sustainability and were phrased in such a way that both sides of the debate could make strong arguments to support their positions.

1.Does the Carrying Capacity Concept Apply to People?
2.Is the American Lifestyle Unethical?
3.Does Sustainability Require Global Equity?
4.Does Sustainability Require a Radical Change in Culture?
5.Should We Ditch Free Market Globalization and GDP?
6.Should More of the World Rely on Virtual Water?
7.Is the Diversion of Water and People from Rural Areas to Cities a Good Thing?
8.Should we Turn Our Backs on "Conventional" Agriculture and Meat?
9.Should We Support Water Privatization and Commodification?
10.Will Human Civilization Achieve Sustainability?

Learning Goals

Debates are a great way to explore the ideological battleground that is sustainability and demonstrate the advantages of pluralistic thinking. Participation in a debate also forces students to invest in a position and work to support it well, which tends to be empowering and gets them past muddled relativism.
Other more specfic goals that the debates help us achieve include:

- Demonstrate advancement in ethical reasoning.
- Identify the philosophies that underlie our actions and discuss how compatible they are with the ideals of sustainability
- Discuss how pursuing different sustainable development ideals can affect our future with regard to water resources, human equity, and other social factors.
- Demonstrate facility in working with partners in an equitable research collaboration by producing quality work on time in a professional manner.
- Articulate improvement in abilities to: tolerate ambiguity in readings and assignments; facilitate intellectual conversations; anticipate and resolve conflict in group situations; and take advantage of diverse skills and perspectives in group work
- Document improvement in abilities to: compare, synthesize, and assess multiple perspectives; and present, support, and evaluate positions and conclusions (their own and those of others).

Context for Use

Water and Sustainability is a 5 credit, 300 level course offered by the Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences program at the University of Washington Bothell. It is a popular elective course that also serves as a core course for students in the Sustainability and Society track of the BA Environmental Studies major.
With regard to the debates, each one takes about an hour. It would be easy to adapt the debate activity to any course that deals with controversial issues.

Description and Teaching Materials

The attachment includes more detail on the mechanics of the activity and some assessment of its value. Using Debates to Engage Students in Sustainability Controversies and Conundrums (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 30kB Apr13 12)

Teaching Notes and Tips


References and Resources

Evergreen State College