Evaluating the Effects of Local Energy Resource Development

Devin Castendyk
State University of New York, College at Oneonta
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This is a semester-long, jigsaw project for a class of 20 to 25 students that has students work in teams to explore the effects of energy resource development on local water resources, economics and society.

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I have used this in an undergraduate-level hydrogeology class containing sophomores, juniors, and seniors. These students are a mix of Water Resources, Environmental Science, Meteorology, Geology, and Adolescent Education majors. If tweaked slightly, I think the same concept could be used in an introductory level class.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Student must be familiar with conducting research from the library and online, as well as gathering data from the local community library. The project also reinforces simple mathematical calculations and interpretations.

How the activity is situated in the course

This activity spans the entire semester:
a) I introduce the project goals on the first day of the class;
b) A field trip is made during the second week of class;
c) Students submit a paper on the first-half of the project half way through the semester;
d) A second paper is due, and class presentations are made during the final week of the semester.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

Students gain experience in data collection from both library and online materials. Students also learn to process these data using simple algebra and statistics. For example, some students perform simple water balance calculations, interpret local hydrostratigraphy, and compare dissolved concentrations to EPA Drinking Water Quality Guidelines. Other students will conduct research on the local economy and the costs and benefits of resource development. Still other students may perform a small survey of the campus to determine social attitudes for and against a proposed development.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

The higher order thinking skills of this activity involve differentiating between bogus data sources and credible data sources, developing a holistic view of energy development projects, formulating an argument either for or against resource development using the data collected, and defending the argument in a class debate.

Other skills goals for this activity

Students develop team-work skills, writing skills, and oral presentation skills.

Description of the activity/assignment

Figure 1 - Project flow chart. Click to enlarge

This document provides a description of a semester-long jigsaw project designed for a class of 16 to 25 students. It is a modification of the "Jigsaw" strategy devised by Elliot Aronson and presented on SERC's Starting Point Jigsaw web page: I was first introduced to the single-class application of the jigsaw method during the 2004 "Preparing for a Career in the Geosciences" workshop in Minnesota.

At the time of writing (May, 2009), I have used this design four times in my Introduction to Hydrogeology class offered to sophomores and juniors, in place of a typical term project. With minor tweaking, I think the design can be applied to any local energy development issue and can be used with introductory level students.

Figure 1 provides a flow chart of the project.

Project Design

Part 1. On the first day of semester, I present the students with a contemporary energy resource development issue that is being debated by our local community. Past topics have included:

a) Evaluate a proposed biofuel power plant in downtown Oneonta (actual proposal)
b) Evaluate a proposed natural gas production well on campus (fictitious proposal)

I ask students to consider how this development will impact local water resources, the local economy, and local society. I also ask students to think and act like environmental consultants as some may work in this field after graduation.

By the end of the semester, students will formulate an argument as to whether the project should be approved, and will defend this stance before the class and invited guests from the local community.

Part 2. On the second day of the semester, I list 4 or 5 themes (depending on class size) on the board. A team of 4 or 5 students will research each theme for the first half of the semester and will write a group report on the topic to submit half-way through the semester. Each topic requires some type of data collection/analysis. Themes typically include:

1. Water Resources: This team of researchers identifies local water users, constructs a water balance for the region, and determines the impact of the proposed activity on the quantity of local water supplies. The team also looks at water quality, determining potential contaminants of concern, at-risk populations (both ecosystems and humans), and water quality guidelines needed to protect these populations.

2. Geology and Energy Resource Production: This team researches the geologic nature of the resource. It will draw a cross section of the local stratigraphy, identify aquifers and confining layers, and identify potential flow paths between wells and aquifers and surface water. The team will also explore the development/production process and identify mitigation strategies that are used to avoid contamination.

3. Economics: This team will research existing local employment opportunities, average incomes in the region, the increase/decrease in local jobs resulting from the proposed development, and the projected benefits to local and state tax revenues. The team will also evaluate the potential clean-up costs that will be required in the event of surface or groundwater contamination, and use this to determine the appropriate environmental bond that should be posted for each well.

4. Social: Using a survey of college students and/or the local community, this team will identify the major concerns and popularity of the proposed development. After cataloging the major fears held by population, this team will differentiate valid concerns from invalid concerns. The team will then develop a public relations strategy designed to alleviate local concerns.

Students volunteer to be part of one team or another based on their personal interests. After signing up for teams, I allow each team to meet for 10-15 minutes to brainstorm.

Evaluation 1. At the end of class, each team submits an outline for their research paper, a time-line for the work that needs to be done, and the name of a project manager. The project manager serves as a liaison between myself and the team, and helps create the sense of an environmental consulting firm.

Part 3. During the second or third week of the semester, I take the class on a field trip to look at an outcrop of the gas-producing unit and to visit the proposed development site. As a group, we try to identify potential water resources issues and make observations about local jobs and incomes.

Evaluation 2. Each team submits a 5-page report on their theme half-way through the semester. An example grading rubric for this paper is included separately on the Serc web page.

Part 4. Upon returning the reports from the first half, all teams are shuffled into 4 new teams. I design the new teams so that there are strong and weak students on each team. Each team is composed of one "expert" from each of the previous teams and given copies of the reports produced by all of the previous teams.

Two teams are told they have been hired by a gas company to defend and promote the development of natural gas on campus. The other two teams are told they have been hired by a local environmental group to oppose the development of natural gas on campus. I usually flip a coin with the students to decide which team will argue which argument.

There are always some students who feel they are required to defend a stance that they do not believe in. I explain to the class that this can happen in the world of consulting, and that the ability to argue an opinion different than your own is a valuable skill.

At this point, each team chooses a name for their consulting firm and elects a new project manager.

Evaluation 3: Each team submits a 5-page report on their argument during second to last week of the semester. I strongly advise them to review the comments I provided on their first report so that they can improve their writing style. This feedback has shown to be useful tool for improving the quality of their writing.

Part 5. Each team presents a 15 minute MS PowerPoint presentation, arguing whether or not natural gas drilling should occur on campus. I require that each member of the team be given a few slides to talk about.

Presentations are made in front of a group of invited guests that include members of the city council, members of the city environmental board, local water managers, members of a local environmental conservation organization, emeritus professors, and college faculty. This interaction raises the bar for the students and let's them see that the arguments they are making affect peoples lives.

The invited guests ask questions after each presentation. I know the guest personally and I ensure that none of the students get grilled. After all the presentations are done, the guests and I move to a separate room to decide which group gave the most convincing argument. This decision determines whether the proposed development will occur or not. The students are always excited to here this verdict.

Evaluation 4: Students are evaluated based on the quality of their overall presentation and their personal contribution.

Project Assessment

I have been very impressed by the quality of students' work, especially on the second paper and the oral presentations. I have observed that the students really get into their research and are motivated by a fun sense of competition.

On their written evaluations, students have stated that this felt like a "real world" experience, especially working on a local topic. The community interaction gave more meaning to the research than other projects they have worked on. Years after the semester, students continue to comment to me about this experience, and I have often noticed that they include this experience on their job resumes during their senior year.

Determining whether students have met the goals

Grading rubric for term papers (Microsoft Word 43kB May7 09)

Students are assessed 4 times over the semester:

Initially, each team develops an outline for their first paper that outlines who will conduct various aspects of the research, when work will be completed, and when group meetings will occur. The group also selects a project manager charged with motivating the group. These outlines are handed in during the second week of class.

A formal paper on each theme is submitted half way through the semester. The comments students receive on this paper help them to write a better second paper (see below).

A second formal paper by the new teams is submitted three weeks prior to the end of the semester and returned to the students one week prior to oral presentations.

Oral presentation and debates are made during the last lab period of the semester.

More information about assessment tools and techniques.

Teaching materials and tips

Other Materials

Supporting references/URLs