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Unit 4: Case Study Group Work-Problem Identification

Authors: Rebecca Boger, Brooklyn College,, Amy E. Potter, Armstrong State University,, and Russanne Low, Institute for Global Environmental Strategies,

These materials have been reviewed for their alignment with the Next Generation Science Standards as detailed below. Visit InTeGrate and the NGSS to learn more.


Drawing on datasets for our three case studies (Nebraska, New York City, and Barbuda, West Indies), students examine climate, built and natural land cover, water availability (ground and precipitation), as well as type, availability, and contamination of soils. Students conduct a spatial analysis using online ArcGIS to examine how people practiced agriculture in the past (e.g., freed slaves in Barbuda, native Americans in New York and Nebraska regions), how agriculture is practiced now (e.g., large-scale farming in Nebraska and small-scale urban farming in New York City) and assess whether these practices leverage or diminish ecosystem services.

Science and Engineering Practices

Analyzing and Interpreting Data: Analyze and interpret data to provide evidence for phenomena. MS-P4.4:

Asking Questions and Defining Problems: Define a design problem that involves the development of a process or system with interacting components and criteria and constraints that may include social, technical, and/or environmental considerations.  HS-P1.8:

Cross Cutting Concepts

Patterns: Graphs, charts, and images can be used to identify patterns in data. MS-C1.4:

Structure and Function: Investigating or designing new systems or structures requires a detailed examination of the properties of different materials, the structures of different components, and connections of components to reveal its function and/or solve a problem. HS-C6.1:

Disciplinary Core Ideas

Global Climate Change: Though the magnitudes of human impacts are greater than they have ever been, so too are human abilities to model, predict, and manage current and future impacts. HS-ESS3.D1:

Ecosystem Dynamics, Functioning, and Resilience: Moreover, anthropogenic changes (induced by human activity) in the environment—including habitat destruction, pollution, introduction of invasive species, overexploitation, and climate change—can disrupt an ecosystem and threaten the survival of some species. HS-LS2.C2:

Biodiversity and Humans: Humans depend on the living world for the resources and other benefits provided by biodiversity. But human activity is also having adverse impacts on biodiversity through overpopulation, overexploitation, habitat destruction, pollution, introduction of invasive species, and climate change. Thus sustaining biodiversity so that ecosystem functioning and productivity are maintained is essential to supporting and enhancing life on Earth. Sustaining biodiversity also aids humanity by preserving landscapes of recreational or inspirational value. HS-LS4.D1:

Performance Expectations

Ecosystems: Interactions, Energy, and Dynamics: Evaluate the claims, evidence, and reasoning that the complex interactions in ecosystems maintain relatively consistent numbers and types of organisms in stable conditions, but changing conditions may result in a new ecosystem. HS-LS2-6:

  1. This material was developed and reviewed through the InTeGrate curricular materials development process. This rigorous, structured process includes:

    • team-based development to ensure materials are appropriate across multiple educational settings.
    • multiple iterative reviews and feedback cycles through the course of material development with input to the authoring team from both project editors and an external assessment team.
    • real in-class testing of materials in at least 3 institutions with external review of student assessment data.
    • multiple reviews to ensure the materials meet the InTeGrate materials rubric which codifies best practices in curricular development, student assessment and pedagogic techniques.
    • review by external experts for accuracy of the science content.

  2. This activity was selected for the On the Cutting Edge Reviewed Teaching Collection

    This activity has received positive reviews in a peer review process involving five review categories. The five categories included in the process are

    • Scientific Accuracy
    • Alignment of Learning Goals, Activities, and Assessments
    • Pedagogic Effectiveness
    • Robustness (usability and dependability of all components)
    • Completeness of the ActivitySheet web page

    For more information about the peer review process itself, please see

This page first made public: Dec 15, 2016


Units 4, 5, and 6 provide the opportunity for students to delve into a greater examination of food security at a regional level in small teams selecting one of the following locations (Caribbean, New York City, or Nebraska) OR a new location of their choice (provided that information and datasets are easily available and students will work with the instructor prior to the start of the unit) to apply skills and concepts taught in Units 1-3. Unit 4 materials are designed to provide a place-based overview for students to prepare them for the summative assessment, to be submitted in Unit 6, a community-based action plan of how the selected community can increase food security and lessen vulnerability.

Learning Goals

After students have completed Units 4, 5, and 6 they will be able to:

  1. Brainstorm solution(s) to the wicked problem of food security using spatial tools.
  2. Synthesize multiple data sets and types of background material.
  3. Describe the various factors that influence food security in three different regional contexts.
  4. Make connections between the Earth system and cultural, economic and political processes to understand the wicked problem of food security.

Context for Use

After working through background materials individually, students work together in groups of 3-6 students to identify issues that pertain to a region and work together to understand the scope of the problem using spatial and non spatial data. Students will be provided data sets and readings. Ideally the students will have two class periods to complete units 4 and 5, and will present their analyses to the class for critique in Unit 6. More detailed analysis is possible if students are assigned part of the work as a homework project and there is a week of time between units 4 and 5 and the submission of the assignment in week 6, and/or if they are given time after the class presentations to incorporate feedback into a final submission.

This unit builds on food security and Earth system science covered in the first three units. It can be taught in any course discussing food security or it can be modified to fit a variety of courses in the sciences and social sciences. The activities included in this unit are appropriate for introductory-level college students or as a basis for more in-depth class discussions on food security for upper-level students.

This unit consists of a 90-minute face-to-face class period and is the first component of a three-part exploration (See then Units 5 and 6). This unit is appropriate for lower division undergraduates who are enrolled in social science, environmental science, or ecology courses. The lesson as designed requires a prior introduction to global food security (see unit 1 as an example), and an introduction to Earth's climate zones and climate change (see Unit 2 and 3).

Description and Teaching Materials

4.1 Pre-class Assignment

Based on the region that was assigned at the end of Unit 3, students will complete background readings so that they come prepared to begin their regional case study work. Each assignment includes questions that students will use to focus their thinking and prepare them for group work during class.

4.2 Class Session (15 minutes total)

Materials needed:

  • Flip chart or large format paper for each team of 2-4
  • Markers
  • Post-it Notes

Discussion: Guided Introduction to Case Study Areas

Instructor will introduce the regional areas that will be addressed in the work for the next three class periods using the illustrated slide stack provided in this module. The objective is to build interest in the regions. A target audience for the resulting food security plan will be identified for each region (ca. CARICOM, the Corn or Wheat Board, Farmer's Market association, etc.).

4.3 Group Discussion (45 minutes total)

After the instructor introductions, students will break off into their case study groups and work through the following steps:

Students will work through the materials provided (See Materials for Regions 1, 2, and 3 below). Some of the materials in the documents were given as homework to get them started on their regions.

Case Study Materials for Unit 4

4.4 Team Brainstorm (30 minutes total)

In their teams of 3-6 members, students should first discuss food security issues or problems that they believe are salient to their region in the context of the assigned reading Wicked Problems. As a group, students should use a flip chart or white board to identify and describe at least one of the issues, using as many of the characteristics of wicked problems presented from the reading, as appropriate.

Based on these ideas, teams will then identify what aspect of food insecurity they would like to specifically explore in their analysis in the context of their community/regional plan. Before leaving class, each team should create a list of the types of data (each case study provides additional resources students can utilize) that they will need to assist in the development of the community/regional plan and distribute the tasks between members.

Combined Case Study Materials for Units 4, 5, 6: We have divided the case study materials among Units 4, 5, 6. Should the instructor want case study materials for all three units see combined file below:

4.5 Post Class Assignment

Some of the students may not be able to complete the case study materials and readings in 45 minutes. Students should finish the readings outside of class and work on their assigned tasks for the community/regional plan.


The authentic assessment for this module is the creation of a community or regional action plan and will be submitted in Unit 6. Each team will submit their individual action plan. In Unit 6, students will participate in a gallery walk, and see how socioeconomic and environmental characteristics of each region require different solutions. Learners will complete a summative essay after the gallery walk. A checklist is provided for use in the evaluation process. It is recommended that the checklist and rubric be distributed to students by Unit 4 so that they can begin to plan their final project Assignment Guide and Rubric for Summative Assesment (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 306kB Dec2 16). The grading rubric is also provided in Unit 6. If the instructor wishes to evaluate the map products at this stage, the universal rubric for evaluating student work, Units 1-4 is included here: Universal Rubric for Assignments Units 1-5 (Excel 2007 (.xlsx) 40kB Dec1 16).

References and Resources

Note: lists of resources for use by regional case study teams for units 4 and 5 will be provided by case study.

Learn more about Gallery Walks from Pedagogy in Action

Beckford, C. L. and Campbell, D.R. (2013) Domestic Food Production and Food Security in the Caribbean: Building Capacity and Strengthening Local Food Production Systems. Palgrave Macmillan: New York.

FAO (2015) Regional Overview of Food Insecurity – Latin America and the Caribbean. FAO.

FAO (2013) Climate- Smart Agriculture Sourcebook.

Ritchie, T. (2013) Wicked problems: Modelling social messes with morphological analysis. Acta Morphologica Generalis 2(1): 1-12.

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These materials are part of a collection of classroom-tested modules and courses developed by InTeGrate. The materials engage students in understanding the earth system as it intertwines with key societal issues. The collection is freely available and ready to be adapted by undergraduate educators across a range of courses including: general education or majors courses in Earth-focused disciplines such as geoscience or environmental science, social science, engineering, and other sciences, as well as courses for interdisciplinary programs.
Explore the Collection »