Alternative futures lesson

Daniel Zalles
SRI International
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This lesson is the culmination of a course on river systems restoration being taught at the University of Washington as part of the Project "Data Sets and Inquiry in Geoscience Environmental Restoration Studies" (NSF GEO-0808076), which is collaboration between UW and SRI International. The lesson bridges the physical and social science issues surrounding how alternative future models are generated for future scenarios about river systems that reflect different stakeholder preferences and how analyses of those scenarios inform attempts to negotiate policies acceptable to the stakeholders.

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This course is being offered at the University of Washington. It is co-listed under American Indian studies and the Department of Earth and Space Sciences. With collaborators from the University of Washington, we have designed a curriculum on the subject of environmental restoration in the Puget Sound area of Washington State with an emphasis on river geomorphology and its systemic relationship to biodiversity and to the history of human interaction with the environment.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

The course is offered to both majors and non-majors. There are no prerequisites.

How the activity is situated in the course

The lesson is the last lesson of a ten-week course. It is preceded by lessons on the following topics: geography and geologic origins of the Puget Sound river landscapes, evolution of the Holocene world: rivers, fish, plants, and people after the glaciers and before the treaties, the geomorphology of rivers and watersheds, the river histories since the signing of land rights treaties between the American government and the Indian tribes, who has rights to salmon and to manage salmon habitat, case study about the Nisqually River and the Boldt Decision, case studies on restoration and management issues with rural rivers, and case studies on restoration and management issues with urbanized rivers.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

The focal concepts include why alternative futures studies about environmental systems are performed, what they model, how the models are generated with prior data, and how the results are used for policy making and for resolving differences between the preferences of competing stakeholder groups. The goals are for students to develop deep understanding of these concepts through active learning opportunities and apply their deep understanding to the knowledge they've gained from the prior lessons in the course.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

The higher-order skills include applying knowledge about the process of alternative futures scenario development and about river systems to hypothesizing preferences of stakeholder groups, synthesizing diverging stakeholder interests, using the synthesis to evaluate the goodness of outcomes for stakeholder groups and hypothesizing relationships between systemic variables in the focal alternative future modeling.

Other skills goals for this activity

Description of the activity/assignment

Alternative futures studies are a valuable yet resource-intensive way in which environmental scientists try to conduct informed debates about policies for specific geographic regions. These studies require modeling what the future would look like if different stakeholder groups had their way. The modeling is carried out by applying historical trend data to future projections that are rooted in the preferences of the different groups. Alternative future studies can be controversial due to the limitations of modeling and to the extent to which the models represent fully the different possible scenarios. Yet, they can be especially valuable for decision making about which areas in the region would be most appropriate and most acceptable for the applications of different policies such as development and restoration. Through a series of hands-on classroom activities that are the culmination of a variety of field trips, case studies, and analyses of GIS data about river systems and river restoration options, the students build deep understanding about what alternative futures studies entail and what are the applications of such studies to specific rivers in the Puget Sound area.

Determining whether students have met the goals

Student responses to the hands-on tasks in the lesson are evaluated with rubrics.

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