Living with Sinkholes: Fragile Foundation

Catherine Pappas-Maenz, Dawson College, Montreal, Canada


Students are given a brief scenario based on an actual event, designed to illustrate specific ethical issues associated with science. After reading the scenario students, will individually and in cooperative learning groups, respond to questions designed to probe their ethics and values. In this scenario, sinkhole development and the relationship between groundwater levels and karst geology are examined. Knowledge is then applied to a lawsuit filed by a family who lost a member in a sinkhole accident.




This activity is appropriate for Introductory Geoscience, Environmental Science, for major or non-majors.

Class size: 15 to 40 students

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered
This case should be introduced to students after they have had some exposure to the concepts of groundwater.

How the activity is situated in the course
The activity involves some independent work outside of the classroom prior to the group discussion in class. Students will access a website to review scientific data regarding the relationship between groundwater and karst terrain. When this is completed, each student group will submit a copy of their answers to the teacher. A discussion will follow in the class with each group contributing to the activity.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

To introduce the basics of karst and cave origin, with emphasis on geologic controls, interpretation, and application to real world problems. How human activities can affect the environment.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Analysing and evaluating the difficulties involved with lawsuits resulting from natural hazards.


Ethical Principles Addressed in this Exercise

Sinkholes are so common in many US states that the insurance industry has gone to the Legislature to limit its liability for claims.This raises some interesting principles. The state should be culpable — legally and not to mention ethically. 

Description and Teaching Materials

This case study is intended to be used as a small group activity.This activity is broken up into two parts: 1) Students will develop an understanding of karst feature development in relation to groundwater processes. 2) Knowledge is then applied to a lawsuit filed by a family who lost a member in a sinkhole accident.
This group discussion activity is described in detail at the following website:

Case Study Scenario

Students are given a description of a natural hazard facing a community. Using the geologic information available and an understanding of how sinkholes form, it is possible to at least have an informed opinion about what happened and what additional information would be needed to further evaluate this case. The groups then engage in an analysis and discussion of the ethics and values of issues raised in the case.


Assessment can be divided into two components which will contribute to a total grade for this activity.

1) A written response to questions. Correct answers will reflect careful thought and rational reasoning. 2) Evaluate the participation of each group during the discussion.

References and Resources


Reference used in this example is part of the collection in the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Sciences


News Article- Mining firm sued for millions over sinkhole By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Useful websites for information on Sinkholes and Karst Terrain