Teach the Earth > Affective Domain > Teaching Controversial Topics > Teaching Environmental Issues

Teaching Environmental Issues and the Affective Domain

Sacramento Municipal Utility District's nuclear cooling towers
Dept. of Energy photo by Warren Gretz
This summary was compiled by Karin Kirk, SERC, and is drawn from the sources referenced below.


Teaching environmental topics can bring out unexpected responses in your students. For example, when you cover the topic of Earth's resources in a physical geology course, you may find previously mild-mannered students become impassioned about the topics, or otherwise attentive and hard-working pupils dig in their heels and resist the information. Doing rock and mineral identification may elicit little emotional response from most students. But when the subject matter seems to confront one's personal lifestyle, political leanings or economic situation, then the topic may be perceived in a very different light.

What are some strategies to teach environmental topics, particularly controversial ones, without coming up against affective barriers to learning? How can you help students learn the science and the policy without getting weighed down by feeling guilty or defiant?

  • Teach the science first
    Even though most environmental topics are a blend of science, policy, economics and human impacts, it may be helpful to separate these into three distinct sub-topics. First, present the science objectively, using data and relevant examples. Next, discuss the policy and economic issues related to this topic. Once those subjects are covered thoroughly, students will often be interested to learn what their own personal stake may be. By setting the stage deliberately, students are more likely to be receptive to the information and are less likely to get turned off.
  • Teach with data
    Statements like "species are going extinct at an alarming rate," "wetlands are being turned into strip malls," and "the climate is getting hotter"are emotional statements (even if true) and will elicit emotional responses in your students. Rather than risk sounding like an alarmist, let the data speak for itself. Have students work through data sets, and they can discover for themselves the rate and extent of environmental change. In some cases, they still may end up being surprised or emotional, but it's because they reached their own conclusion, not because you told them to be alarmed. [Schweizer and Kelly, 2005]
  • Use active learning techniques
    The Fossil Gulch Wind Park near Hagerman, Idaho
    Photo by Stuart Van Greuningen, Idaho Energy Division
    Students learn better when the can learn it for themselves, and this is especially true for topics that are potential turn-offs for students. Environmental issues lend themselves to teaching techniques like using local examples, gathering data from the field, using role-playing or debates, or participating in environmental projects. [Iozzi, 1989] , [Schweizer and Kelly, 2005]
  • Controversy, ambiguity, and topics with incomplete or missing evidence can be used constructively (but need to be introduced judiciously)
    Engaging controversial topics, or topics that have no clear-cut answers, can create an environment where students are motivated to learn more out of curiosity or imminent need [e.g. Edelson, 2001 ]. Students can be encouraged to review what is known, to identify what additional information is needed to solve the problem, and to continue the search to find and critically examine new information. Learning goals for students can include development of "scientific habits of the mind" [AAAS, 1989 (more info) ], to be critical consumers of information, and to be able to create, present and rebut arguments based on evidence. A supportive environment needs to be created to encourage scholarly and open review of the arguments and ideas, and provisions need to be put in place to prevent interpersonal (ad hominem) attacks in reporting results in class activities.
  • It's not all doom and gloom
    Certain environmental topics can be downright depressing. However, there are also many environmental success stories. Strive for a balance in which students do not feel overwhelmed by a preponderance of "bad news." After all, environmental successes provide relevant examples of how problems can be overcome.
  • Clearly define your role and your teaching approach
    There are many ways to teach environmental issues. Before jumping into your curriculum, consider what your desired outcomes are and what approach you will take. Is your intent to teach just the relevant scientific processes, to promote an awareness of environmental issues, or to lead students toward a shift in their own environmental behavior? In the classroom, do you assume the role of environmental guardian, a free-marketeer, or a devil's advocate? There are advantages to various approaches, but it's important to consciously consider what your goals are and how you can best achieve them. [Corney, 1998]
  • Lead by example, but don't preach
    We all know the stereotype that college professors drive tiny, efficient cars and live an eco-minded lifestyle. Regardless of whether or not this describes you, it's best to avoid talking down to your students for their own personal choices. Preaching to the class about what's "good" and what's "bad" will likely have the opposite effect than you intended; it can be a major turn-off for students. If your goal is to promote environmentally-favorable behavior in your students, consider a hands-on project that will challenge students to consider the environmental impacts of their own actions. [Kirk and Thomas, 2003]

Resources and Examples

Selected Literature

Air pollution over Denver traffic
US Dept of Energy photo by Warren Gretz

Teaching and learning in environmental education: Developing environmental conceptions (Ballantyne and Packer, 1996)
citation and bibliographic information This paper discusses how environmental education is closely connected with the affective domain in that it involves attitudes, values and behaviors, in addition to cognitive knowledge. The authors recommend that teachers develop conceptions in environmental education by using a range of strategies designed to integrate an individual's environmental knowledge, attitudes/values, and behavior. The application of constructivist learning provides a basis for encouraging students to become aware of their environmental conceptions, challenge inconsistencies in those conceptions, and make informed decisions regarding their environmental conceptions.

Enhancing environmental conceptions: An evaluation of cognitive conflict and structured controversy learning units (Ballantyne and Bain, 1995)
citation and bibliographic information Learning experiences which challenge and enhance students' conceptions of environmental issues and environmental education by confronting them with alternative viewpoints and evidence were trialed in two postgraduate environmental teacher education courses. Findings indicate that as a result of participating in the learning experiences, students formulated their own position more clearly, better understood the viewpoints of others, became aware of inadequacies and inconsistencies in their conceptions and were challenged to increase their environmental commitment.

Learning to Teach Environmental Issues (Corney, 1998)
citation and bibliographic information This paper describes preliminary results from a qualitative research study into the thinking and practice of student geography teachers in the teaching of environmental issues. The study investigates ways that teachers think about environmental issues and the corresponding ways that teachers teach these topics. The author points out that teachers must make various value judgments in teaching environmental issues.

A Multivariate Analysis of the Relationship Between Attitude Toward Science and Attitude Toward the Environment (Ma and Bateson, 1999)
citation and bibliographic information This statistical study identified the relationship between students' attitude toward science and attitude toward the environment. Canadian 9th grade students answered sets of attitude questions about the environment and about science in general. The strongest correlation was that students who had a positive attitude toward science also had a positive attitude toward science. Another correlation indicated that students favored preservation of natural resources but also did not favor a reduction in freedom for logging companies, farmers, automobile drivers, and so on.

Developing Analytical and Communication Skills in a Mock-Trial Course Based on the Famous Woburn, Massachusetts Case (Bair, 2000)
This paper describes an interdisciplinary course based on the book A Civil Action. Students analyze aerial photographs, well logs, streamflow records, permeability tests, and water-level and water-quality data from the trial to complete assignments that become exhibits in the mock trial. Assignments include construction of geologic cross sections, potentiometric maps, hydrographs, flood recurrence graphs, and calculation of hydraulic gradients, groundwater velocities, and contaminant travel times. The course teaches students how to develop and defend their opinions, how to question the opinions of others, the limitations of data collection and analysis, and the importance of integrating computational and communication skills.

The Use of a Mock Environment Summit to Support Learning about Global Climate Change (Gautier and Rebich, 2005)
citation and bibliographic information This paper describes a course that addresses the human aspects of global change through the development and negotiation of an international environmental agreement. Students play the roles of country representatives and participate in activities such as writings, class discussions, presentations and negotiations.

An Investigation of Student Engagement in a Global Warming Debate (Schweizer and Kelly, 2005)
citation and bibliographic information This study investigates how using debate as a pedagogical tool for addressing earth system science concepts can promote active student learning, present a realistic and dynamic view of science, and provide a mechanism for integrating the scientific, political and social dimensions of global environmental change. The investigation examines how students make use of observationally-based climatic data sets when debating the cause of global warming.

Teaching Controversial Issues: Resources from GSA Short Courses - 2016 Edition
Resources and advice for teaching about controversial issues from the 2013-2016 half-day GSA short courses.

Diving into the Trenches: Rules of Thumb for Teaching Controversial Issues (Duggan-Haas, 2015)
This In the Trenches article discusses important rules of thumb for teaching controversial issues.

In the Trenches - July 2015 Special Issue: Teaching about Fracking
This special issue of In the Trenches focuses on the complex set of processes for extracting oil and natural gas known as slickwater horizontal high volume hydraulic fracturing, more commonly known as "fracking." It also includes links to example activities.

There's no such thing as a free megawatt: hydrofracking as a gateway drug to energy literacy – Discussion Guide (Duggan-Haas and Ross, 2015)
This case recognizes the teachable moment provided by the heightened interest in where our energy comes from. It offers an eight hour program (designed as a teacher professional development workshop, but adaptable to undergraduate or high school courses) that complexifies what seems like a simple issue to many. It also includes links to an array of resources that provide instructional materials for teaching activities for as short as a single class or provide the foundation to a course. Investigating the environmental, cultural, and economic impacts of hydrofracking and contextualizing it in the broader energy system highlights a wide range of ethical questions and draws attention to a simple (sort of) bottom line: We need to use a lot less energy. (Also see the Activity sheet describing this resource.)

Teaching Methods



A student measuring stream discharge
A student gathering stream discharge data
The Starting Point collection contains introductory earth science teaching materials organized by various teaching methods. The collection contains sections on teaching with data, using role-playing activities, using your campus as a laboratory, experience-based environmental projects, and Structured Academic Controversy.

Activity Collections

Selected examples:

  • What Should We Do About Global Warming?
    Teaching materials by Sharon Anthony, Thomas W. Brauch, Elizabeth J. Longley (Beloit College/ChemConnections)
    This 3-4 week science module is designed for introductory college courses and uses data to tackle questions related to global warming. The module includes short and long term temperature trend data, along with IR spectra, concentration trend data for greenhouse gases, and information about the Kyoto Protocol.
  • The Great Energy Debate
    Teaching materials by National Geographic
    This lesson plan explores the controversial issues surrounding the energy debate in the United States. Students will research recent initiatives being taken in this area and analyze their implications. They will then assume the roles of pivotal stakeholders in this debate and testify to a mock congressional committee responsible for making decisions about public lands and energy resources.
  • Mock Environmental Summit
    Teaching materials by Catherine Gautier (University of California Santa Barbara)
    At the end of a six-week class or unit on global warming, students role-play representatives from various countries and organizations at an international summit on the Santa Barbara protocol, dealing with global warming. The students prepare by studying the IPCC report on Global Climate Change, the Kyoto Protocol, and other information on human impacts on the environment.
  • The Use of a Piece of Land
    Teaching materials by Duane Leavitt for Activities and Resources for Earth Science Teachers from the Maine Geological Survey
    This activity is designed to engage students in a practical exercise in land use planning, to make the students aware of the positive and negative aspects of land use laws and local zoning ordinances through role-playing. The students represent groups interested in purchasing the same piece of land. Each group must research to devise a plan that is legal and attractive and present proposals to convince the current owners to sell the land to their group. The instructor is advised to use a real plot of land so that real land use laws can be researched.
  • Global Temperatures
    Created by Columbia University Earth and Environmental Science Faculty
    Students analyze the global temperature record from 1867 to the present. Long-term trends and shorter-term fluctuations are both evaluated. The data is examined for evidence of the impact of natural and anthropogenic climate forcing mechanisms on the global surface temperature variability.
  • The Lifestyle Project
    Karin Kirk (Montana State University) and John J. Thomas (Skidmore College)
    This project allows students to challenge themselves to reduce their impact on the environment by changing the way in which they live from day to day, over a period of three weeks. Students write about their experiences in journals, which are incredibly insightful, illustrating just how profoundly the project affects them.
  • Structured Academic Controversy - Climate Change
    Claudia Khourey-Bowers, Kent State University
    Students use a role-playing format to explore various positions on climate change. Students use a meeting of an international council to expand their perspectives on the issue and increase their understanding of others' points of view.
  • Communicating Global Climate Change: Using Debate to Engage Integrative Learning This series of video clips from MERLOT/ELIXR demonstrates the use of debate as a strategy for engaging student with the issues surrounding climate change. Project materials, timelines and PowerPoint slides are also included.

  • Do you know of an article, web site, data set or other reference for teaching environmental issues? Please tell us about it.

    If you have a classroom activity that is useful for teaching environmental issues, you can add it to the teaching activities collection.