Initial Publication Date: March 3, 2022

Using the Mississippi River Watershed Module in Introduction to Environmental Economics

Anna Klis, Northern Illinois University

Course Description

About the Course

Introduction to Environmental Economics

Level: An introductory course for non-majors. Mix of micro and macro principles, environmental theming, and some environmental economics techniques. Majority environmental studies majors, but open to all fields.
Size: 50 students
Format: Fall '21: in-person, Spring '21: online-only, mix of sync/async

Course specific exercise »

This course offers an overview of economic analyses of environmental issues like pollution and resource management for non-majors. Students will receive an introduction to marginal thinking, market-based solutions, valuation techniques, and government intervention, with a focus on current issues and applying economics in an interdisciplinary manner to other environmental fields.

I think my students loved it ... I think that they really, really grasped the concept of needing and organizing principle and of needing to pay attention to all the stakeholders and all the different ways that they can influence each other.

Explore the Mississippi River Watershed Module »

Relationship of the Mississippi Watershed Module to Your Course

The course is semester-length (15/16 weeks). The module is covered in weeks 7 & 8.

Prior to the module, we cover concepts of scarcity, demand and supply, markets and the five hidden assumptions of the free market, and property rights. We also have a field trip to a local distillery in the first four works where students hear from a local business-owner about the sustainability actions they've taken and why it made economic sense to do so.

In particular, just before the module, we go over the requirements for a free market: agents are rational (their preferences are complete and transitive), markets exist, no externalities, no market power, and no asymmetric information. The Mississippi River module demonstrates the presence of nearly all of these in the "market" of river pollutants - we do not have trading permits for the market/pollutants are controlled but property rights are hard to establish, the externality of pollution is very clear, some agents have power and others do not, and there is greater information on the side of pollution manufacturers/upriver stakeholders than households/downriver stakeholders.

Throughout the course, we used team-based learning, so we had ready-made groups to do the first round of stakeholder boards with. Following the BASICS lecture with supplemental comparisons, the students made the stakeholder boards on Lucidspark with their teams - this worked very well when we were all online, and worked reasonably well in-person as well. Afterward, students were "jigsawed" into new groups for the stakeholder presentation: each student from a team was assigned to a different stakeholder, so that groups could collaborate with someone new, and then students could bring different stakeholder experiences back to their original group. Many students, particularly in the in-person semester, expressed to me that they wished they could have been with the people they already knew in the teams that already existed. Most team work is done in class for this course, so the need to work together outside of class proved a barrier for the second exercise. Finally, for the class stakeholder board, Lucidspark worked very well for the online-only course but was a bit less engaging in the in-person course.

Additionally, we looked at using the supply-demand curves in a unilateral externality market with an upriver farming community and a downriver fishing community (an example from William Jaeger's "Environmental Economics for Tree Huggers and Other Skeptics) and looked at how the benefits and costs can have different shapes. Throughout the course we could refer back to the Mississippi River module as a complex system, a wicked problem, and something to which we could apply some of the valuation techniques studied in the latter half of the course.

Integrating the Module into Your Course

In my course, the basics module fell into the externalities section of the class. We had just been talking about property rights and unintended effects. And so the basics module basically came in as an extremely true to life, real world example of a situation. I had the students prepare and read some of the Mississippi River material ahead of time. Then in class, we had a very short lecture just going through what stakeholders are essentially, bringing in a little bit of an economic mindset but also making sure to tie in the map of the Mississippi River basin, of trying to really point out who everybody involved is. In my class we have existing teams. I took these teams and in them, they did their individual team stakeholder boards. They sort of had to imagine ahead of time what everything looked like. Then the teams were mixed up with a jigsaw approach to become the Mississippi River stakeholders. And so I went from eight teams down to six stakeholders to make sure that every single stakeholder new group had different team members before. I did this in a jigsaw pattern as in, you come in from your own group, everybody brings in their mindsets, comes together to become the stakeholder, and then takes that stakeholder mindset back to their group. I'm not 100% sure I was happy with how that worked out. I think that some of my students definitely expressed a preference that they would've preferred to be with their original team based learning teams, even for the stakeholder project. In class, the students then worked on the stakeholder presentations. And then in the next lecture, so that, that would be two lectures so far in the third one, the various stakeholders gave their presentations, described a little bit. And then in a fourth lecture, we did a class stakeholder board as well as put this sort of in the context of a unilateral externality model with supply and demand graphs of a river pollutant coming down from a farming community to a fishing community.

What Worked Well

The team stakeholder boards, the very first part of the cohort exercise, worked really well. The students were called a little bit to reach on their creativity and a little bit on their preparation. And even though they maybe even felt a little bit lost or they didn't feel quite like experts at that point, they came up with really nice boards that then later on we could put them together as a class in part three and see a much more complicated picture develop than any of the individual awards to start with. The stakeholder presentations were pretty nice. I've done these twice so far. Once virtually and once in person and there seem to be groups that excel at either modality and some of the teams have come up with some really amazing additional research putting in a little bit of additional passion as well. This past semester's citizens group was really phenomenal. They really made it a persuasive speech as if they were at a town hall meeting. In the past, I've had a really excellent water treatment group where they looked up a reverse osmosis system, found its cost, found everything, and proposed it that way. So in those regards the group activities work out really, really well.

Challenges and How They Were Addressed

One of the challenges has been doing a virtual whiteboard with the students. At NIU we have a Lucidspark license for our BASICS cohorts. Lucidspark is an online whiteboard program similar to Mural. And when I was teaching completely virtually, the Lucidspark program was amazing to really get the students involved. We were all on Zoom together, but for both the individual boards and then the class board, this was their main way of showing their participation in the class. So whether they were in Zoom breakout rooms with their little team or later on we were in full class Zoom, they essentially were able to go on a Lucidspark, listen to me, pay attention to their screen, and also kind of add things to the board. I tried using Lucidspark again in my in-person classroom. The main reason being that, again, it's really easy of move and rearrange pieces and also to make sure that we were still social distancing in the classroom. And I just found that it did not get as much buy-in on the class level. The individual teams still worked really well. They would essentially gather around, either one laptop or a couple and then, they really worked together to put a map that made sense. But in the larger class map, we felt a little bit more disconnected. Even though students at that point had gotten a little bit of practice into the program, it still wasn't the easiest thing for them to manage. And also just in general, this past semester has had a challenge with paying attention with distraction. And so I think we didn't quite make it over that hurdle by using the online whiteboard software.

Student Response to the Module and Activities

I think my students loved it. In a couple of mid-semester evaluations, this was one of the highlights from the teams and the BASICS module was constantly mentioned in our online discussion platform. All the students were asking about, so did we pick the right solution? What could we have done better? And I think that they really, really grasped the concept of needing and organizing principle and of needing to pay attention to all the stakeholders and all the different ways that they can influence each other. They also really paid attention to the fact that we need both the hard science, the exact parameters on nature to determine where the impacts are and that we need that economics, government, business approach and communication approach to really get towards talking about solving the problem over overall. That essentially any one of the stakeholders could try to do something on their own and that would still not fully solve the problem. So I think they really liked that. It gave a very, very good piece of realism to our class when these are topics that we've talked a lot about, but they kind of made them gel together.