Initial Publication Date: May 3, 2022

Using the Mississippi River Watershed Module in Pollution Prevention and Sustainable Production

Theodore Hogan, Northern Illinois University

About the Course

TECH 245, Pollution Prevention and Sustainable Production

Level: A general education course with no prerequisites. Typical students include Engineering Technology, Public Health, and Environmental Studies majors.
Size: 40 students
Format: In-person

Course specific exercise »

Course Description

Study of environmental and occupational health issues related to the design, manufacture, and application of technology. Analysis of case studies to evaluate potentially adverse outcomes, and prevention through compliance with environmental regulations and voluntary standards (EPA, OSHA, ISO). Application and implementation of environmentally sustainable design and manufacturing, and pollution prevention practices.

Primarily, what was missing (from my course) that the module help(ed) incorporate was ... the social implications.

Explore the Mississippi River Watershed Module »

Relationship of the Mississippi Watershed Module to Your Course

This is a semester-long General Education course that uses active learning to explore the concepts of sustainability through the paper, plastic and metal in a charger cable or other simple phone accessory. Students teams learn about the life cycles of each of these materials, and weigh each of the materials and quantitate the production environmental impacts on water, air and soil and human health impacts. This is followed by the Mississippi Watershed Module (4 classes over 2 weeks). Then student teams then redesign the product and production process, and compare the life cycle impacts of the original and redesigned product. Students also examine the business benefits of sustainability along with the dangers of "greenwashing." Finally, students develop and present slides that summarizes their projects. Students are guided through this extremely complex project by detailed worksheets (which I am willing to share with other teachers).

Integrating the Module into Your Course

It was an awkward fit and it took me a long time to figure it out. And, but it wasn't until this time ... that I was able to better understand its implications and how to use it. There are many things that I don't cover in my course, this module covers. And I see that if I actually (use) this at the beginning of the semester, rather than near the middle or the end, it would feel serve my course better and my students better by introducing some broader themes in terms of water quality and water issues. Because later on the semester, they get into a great deal of looking at water issues from the environmental impacts of a product that they're looking at. We look at water for paper production. We look at water for metal refining. We look at water in the production process of the equipment that's being used. We look at pollution. We quantitate the pollution associated with each of the products that they're working with. And so there's impacts that go into the water there too. So it provides a framework to make that happen. Not exactly the same core module as is, but the concept of looking at water in a sense, and then we've been able to fit our (the class's) parts into it (the module) in a much wider way. I think the point of this is that it may be awkward for everybody the first time they try this, but the second time they try it they need to think about it in a broader way than just trying to complete the project (module). This is a teaching tool and it's not a fixed object that they have to use in a certain way. And I think that if I and they change (my and their) perspective on this and take the strengths from it, I'll (they'll) have a much better outcome in using the material.

What Worked Well

I think that the parts that worked well were the different perspectives of the different groups. I had to enhance those though, I didn't think there was enough information on some of them (stakeholder groups). I knew a lot about coal plants. I used to be head of safety in ... they had a number of coal plants. So I was able to incorporate more information about the workers and what their perspectives might be and also more about the pollution aspects of it. I think that each of the groups need more detail and resources to make it easier for them (the students) to grasp the key messages out of that. ... adding a couple of bullet points for resources. Some worker perspectives, because if you represent workers, you might provide some (resources) rather than give an abstract that they know nothing about, or very few might know about. Give them some concept about that (the resources/perspectives) and then also about different kinds of coal jobs and the like so that they understand. ... enough imagination to give them anchors to work with. Don't make it hard for them (the students) to get the basics so that they can focus on the main message here, which is to have a perspective that's different from others. Again, what that perspective is give them something.

Challenges and How They Were Addressed

Every teacher that's going to take this on has a whole semester already and they've got their course tightly packed and that makes it difficult to adapt into a thing. I think what might be helpful is if there are ways to cut off pieces of focus, not to try to have to do every single component in there (the module). For example, I don't have them do the overall class project of the (stakeholder) mapping at the end. I can't make that happen. Instead, I have different groups share with other groups and have one group talk to another, rather than all five groups talking to each other. So, I have one group talk to another group and then share their perspectives that way. So, you have five students talking to five students instead of five students talking to 40 or 40 talking to each other. And it's a much easier way to for everybody to participate. One of the points that I try to get across in the general education course is that you need to take chances. And it's easier to take chances if it's just a small group with a small group. And so they getting confidence doing that. I think that it would be easier. I hate to say this, but separate the research from the practice and we need to allow flexibility. Maybe in cohorts going forward, allow for chunking of the overall project to allow practitioners easier ways to fit it in their course.

Student Response to the Module and Activities

I've been teaching this course the way that I've been teaching it now for seven years, maybe eight years. And I just want to show you where the students end up. So, the students take a simple life cycle of a phone accessory, a cable and the box that it came in, and they look at the resources that are required to make these products. They redesign the product and compare are the two, the old and the new. They look at the resource extraction, the manufacturing process, the distribution, the use, and the end of life cycle. And this goes on. They look at the resources. They look at the energy usage. They look at the water use. So they are looking at the water used to wash some metals as the products get put together. They look at the environment impacts, the air pollution, the toxic chemicals and the like, and then it goes on. This is a 200 level course. They look at their products and the resources, whether the process they're using is more or less sustainable, whether it's easier or more difficult to change things. 30 years ago people proposing solar power as cheaper than nuclear power was crazy. That's crazy, absolutely nuts. Well, it's not nuts. It just takes time. And so trying to think about forward thinking that you can, there are things that are easy now and there are things that are hard and long term. And dealing with wicked problems is taking care of the easy things that you can now and thinking about them for the future. And looking at, again, the processes, the whole life cycle, the resource extraction, the processing of the materials, the manufacture treatment process, the distribution process, the use of functions, and the end of life. So they get a very comprehensive picture. Primarily, what was missing that the module will help incorporate is looking at the social implications of it. And I think that's one of the things that's a lesson I can get out of this that I can use better in my classes. But you don't need to incorporate a whole module to do that. I need to incorporate the concept like I did into the course specific assignment. I think we should gather lessons about how different people have approached this and use them to shows ways to get the concepts across. I've done this for a long time. And students get a lot out of this course. They quantitate, they actually measure how much metal is in their product. They measure how much papers in their product. They change the size of the box. And they measure the difference between the two. They quantitate their environmental impacts of the changes that they make. It's not abstract anymore. And so getting away from the abstract concepts to more concrete examples will help get the messages across better. And I'm not saying do it my way. Each of the courses can look at practical examples because the one way to address the wicked problem is to give them something to grab onto. And that will allow them (whatever course subject it is) to take a concrete approach to a conceptual problem. Because otherwise you just throw up your hands by the end of the semester. At the beginning, when I used to teach a course like this, they just threw up their hands. Like I can't do anything about it. And that's a bad outcome. That's a bad outcome for a wicked problem. There is something they can do about it. They can take little pieces at a time they can and build for the long term. That's what I want them to be able to take out of this course. Some positivity, rather than the negativity that can happen this kind of concept/topic.