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Unit 4: Case Study Analysis

Lisa Phillips, Illinois State University,
Kate Darby, Western Washington University,
Mike Phillips, Illinois Valley Community College,


In this unit, student groups will evaluate different environmental case studies to critically investigate qualitative and quantitative data analysis, collection, and inquiry. Students will begin to consider different forms of sensory-related data collection and how experiential knowledge informs the ways in which one forms analytical, evaluative questions. Student expert groups are provided one case study (different expert groups will examine at least two different cases) that has a number of different kinds of resources that students will examine (e.g. journalistic, scientific, narrative, visual, auditory). Students will use cooperative learning methods to engage with problem-based inquiry rather than have the case study information delivered via instructor-based lecture. Given that students across disciplinary contexts may not have been exposed to scientific methods of investigation, this unit encourages systems thinking alongside other methods of investigation. As students consider the variety of perceptions that occur within a group of people sharing an environmental experience, students are able to consider the impact that different types of data have on one's perception of data collection and its analysis. This exercise also demonstrates the utility of interdisciplinary thinking—by examining data sets from multiple academic disciplines, students gain a more complete understanding of the case study compared to what they would have understood by examining data from a single research approach. The activity also provides students with an opportunity to practice interdisciplinary thinking and collaboration skills. The cases address several key environmental challenges: soil contamination, water resources, and the impacts of industrial agriculture.

A collaborative learning method is used in conjunction with guided class and group discussion to critically examine different types of data and encourage consistency of data analysis between student groups. This unit uses a group exploration and presentation activity to ensure equal distribution of materials and accountability among class participants. In essence, the students teach each other about the case studies with the instructor providing questions to elicit depth and synthesis between groups as well as to ensure that critical data analysis is undertaken.

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Learning Goals

Students will:

  • Compare and contrast different conceptual approaches (sensory and geoscientific) to mapping environmental issues.
  • Identify different data types used to understand an environmental issue and evaluate the implications of different data uses in environmental problem-solving.

In conjunction with other units of this module, students will:

  • Analyze different sets of data in a collaborative learning environment.
  • Synthesize how different kinds of sensory input inform data collection and analysis.
  • Determine how to transfer research analysis to other students in order to develop consensus before engaging in field-based research.

Context for Use

This case study analysis activity may be appropriate for any level college course in Earth sciences, as well as in related humanities fields (especially communications and rhetoric). This set of activities may also be useful for methods courses, as it asks students to critically evaluate how data are used to understand and address environmental problems. Undergraduate students often receive lecture-based analyses of environmental case studies to consume, but they are not routinely involved in the collection of the data or provided with a wide variety of presentation styles. They may collect and present data following already established protocols and formats prescribed by a specific discipline. This unit guides students through the process of evaluating the merits of different kinds of data collection and presentation consistent with interdisciplinary methods.

Prior to beginning the case study inquiry activity, students should:

  • be familiar with how subjectivity and objectivity function in research methods (Unit 1, Unit 2, and Unit 3 of this module)
  • be familiar with data collection protocols based in quantitative and qualitative methodologies (Unit 3 of this module)
  • be familiar with presentation styles that may be used for different purposes and audiences (Unit 1 of this module)
  • be familiar with evaluative assessments of data quality and synthesis

Subsequent to this unit, students may use collected sensory data to characterize an environmental setting. (Unit 5 of this module)

The variety of data types included in the case studies is intended to build upon the the data set analysis of Unit 1 of this module, help students develop a further understanding of the relationships between the different types of data that may be used to characterize a site, and use the various types of information to develop a holistic model of a site that considers the interrelated systems present. Such a model integrates social, biological, and geophysical information and allows for characterizations that address the needs of different audiences while still providing accurate representations of the site.

Description and Teaching Materials


Students will need case study materials and data sets from instructors. Students will need writing materials. Students may need access to presentation software (ie. PowerPoint or Prezi) to prepare their findings prior to sharing with the class.


The case study analysis takes place over one or two class sessions depending on time available. Students will engage with each other and case study materials in a group analysis and presentation exercise wherein they develop expert groups for each case study and characterize the case study documents. The groups will teach their peers about the case as well as the nature of the data surrounding the case itself, building a more holistic understanding of environmental case studies and the strengths and weaknesses of different types of data and how the data is presented. The instructor will guide students in the development of a summary comparison of the sites and the data used to characterize the sites.

Introduction (10–15 min)

The instructor will begin by reviewing some of the principal findings of the previous units in this module with the class. Specifically, the characterization and presentation of data (Unit 1 and Unit 2) and the collection of data considered (Unit 3). The instructor will then ask the class to brainstorm on the many ways in which information on an environmental concern might be presented, and will record the results on the board/screen at the front of the room. (The list could include newspaper articles, TV reports, complaints to government authorities, discussions between neighbors, test results from samples, observation reports, etc.) The instructor should ask the students to consider the following:

  • Are all of these examples the same in terms of scientific quality?
  • Who might collect different types information?
  • How does a person's personal, educational, and professional background impact the type and quality of information they collect?
  • How do environmental conditions (social, biological, geophysical) impact the type and quality of information collected?
  • To what extent does each reflect the complexity of interacting systems present?
  • How does each impact the different audiences that might access them?
  • How important is each in the overall decision-making process?
The instructor will direct the students to consider these questions with respect to several case studies and will then begin the exercise below.

Group Analysis (30–40 min)

Students will be divided into groups of three to six; the instructor will provide each group with the documents from one case study of the three included with this module (the instructor should use at least two different case studies). Case study documents include personal anecdotes, journalistic descriptions, scientific data, and report summaries. Within each group, students will analyze and evaluate the case study materials and characterize each piece of information with respect to its ease of understanding, relevance to the case, apparent clarity and accuracy, whether and how well it describes the complexity of the systems present, and how well it engages the reader as well as whether it is qualitative or quantitative, subjective or objective. Each group member will take one or two of the case study documents and examine them thoroughly. Each member will then describe each document they examined to their group, and the group will discuss the document and develop a consensus characterization of documents based on guidance provided by the instructor and based on class discussions from prior units of this module (qualitative vs quantitative, method of collection, repeatability, intended audience, etc.). The group will then develop a description of the case as a whole and characterize the supporting documentation with respect to its ability to impact different potential audiences (such as the general public, regulators, impacted residents, nearby business owners, owners of potentially responsible businesses); this group consensus should be completed by the end of the class session and distributed to all members of the group for use during the next session. Throughout this process, the instructor will circulate between the groups, listening, answering questions and prompting the groups to consider source, audience, effect, and data quality. The instructor will give particular attention to helping the students understand how the data sets are connected.

Each group will prepare a short summary on its findings to share with the entire class; the summary can be oral or written but should include the opportunity for questions and comments from the class.

Progress Review (5–10 min)

When the Group Analysis concludes, the instructor will briefly review the class findings on data characterization, audience, and impact using the class responses. These should be provided by displaying them on the board/screen at the front of the room. The students should be solicited for any changes that they would like to make to the findings. The instructor will remind the class that by drawing on data from different research approaches, students have gained a better understanding of the case study. The instructor might ask the students how their understanding of the case would be different had they only examined one of the data sets and how the various data sets are related to each other. The summary should include a table grid listing each of the case studies at the top of a column and blank rows that will be filled in with types of data brainstormed by the class during the introduction to this unit.

If this takes place over two class sessions, a summary document may be prepared with a copy provided to each student at the beginning of the second class session.

Group Presentations (30 min)

Each group will share a brief overview (5 minutes max) of their case, the documents their group felt best characterized the case with respect to the intended audience, and why their group chose those documents. If more than one group is presenting the same case, those groups should present back-to-back.

After each case and relevant supporting documents have been shared, the instructor will prompt the class to consider audience, effect, and data quality. (What audience would be most affected by/interested in this data set or presentation style? What audience would be least affected by/interested in this data set or presentation style? Will this data set stand up to close scrutiny? Does this data set fairly represent the site and the concerns people have about it?) The class will use that analysis to fill out the table created during the Progress Review. Through this process, the class will develop a description of the characteristics of a strong supporting document that would best characterize an environmental case in a manner that would inspire action from an assigned target audience. The instructor will summarize the results on the board/screen at the front of the room and will facilitate the class discussion on the interplay between data quality, intended audience, and effect.

The emphasis will be on how data is used to understand and evaluate an environmental "problem" at hand as well as how interconnected data sets, when removed from the context of the whole, can be misleading or can highlight an important aspect. Discussion of how people are personally affected by different "data" sets is crucial to students' comprehension of the human impact of risk assessment and data collection.

Class Summary and Discussion (10–15 min)

After the groups have presented and the table has been completed, the instructor should spend a few minutes facilitating a discussion about how to best characterize (through data collection and presentation) these types of environmental problems, given the connectivity in all of these cases between multiple, open systems. For example, in the smelter case, lead and arsenic was emitted into the atmosphere, settled into the soils (with higher concentrations determined by prevailing winds), and moved into human systems as adults worked and children played and into local rivers as rain washed it away from where it first landed. Further, the sulfur emitted by the smelters combined with water from the atmosphere creating sulfuric acid, which could then dissolve some of the arsenic and lead, allowing it to move into the groundwater. As another example, humans produce waste materials that go into landfills where microbes break down our trash and produce unpleasant odors; the more trash we produce, the more unpleasant smell we contribute. In order to reduce that odor (and prevent trash from blowing and washing off of the site), landfill operators cap the landfills, which changes the decomposition from aerobic to anaerobic. Anaerobic processes create methane (which leaks into the air, causing global warming) and harmful liquid waste called leachate (which seeps into the groundwater and is carried to nearby rivers). How can we investigate and then explain the complex chain of interactions that result in environmental contamination? How can we address the types of problems we have learned about without creating new problems?

Reflection paper assignment (5 min)

The last five minutes of class the instructor will provide students with an assignment sheet for a graded reflection. Each student will submit a short (1–2 page) paper describing the student's initial impression of the case, changes resulting from the synthesis of additional data and discussion with others, and the impact of different forms of data considered in the overall analysis of the assigned case. Summative Assessment #2: Case Study Reflection & Rubric (Microsoft Word 54kB May16 16)

Teaching Notes and Tips

Prior to the class session, the instructor may assign students to read from a short set of materials that discuss the rhetorical impact of different styles of visual communication. "Rhetorical impact" refers to the persuasive effect a presentation of any type has on its audience; this effect can be intended or unintended. Assigning questions about a chapter, article, reading log, or reading response helps ensure preparation prior to providing the students with the case study materials. Instructors will need to develop different question prompts depending on the article or chapter contents, or instructors can ask for a summary of the reading as a "ticket in."

Explaining to students that they need to develop a tutorial of their case study to present to their peers (in the second session) is a useful prompt as they prepare their group summaries.

Students should be encouraged to keep in mind that the whole characterization of a site often exceeds the total of the data parts. An environmental site is a complex system of interacting pieces that includes the initial contaminants, the various pathways the contaminants travel through and away from the site (which typically results in the alteration of the contaminants), the disparate places the contaminants travel to, and the variety of ways in which the resulting impacts are revealed (including odors, discoloration of soil and water, and the disease and death of plants, animals, and people).

Sensory impacts (unusual sights, sounds, and odors) are often the initial indicators that call attention to an environmental impact and subsequently direct environmental investigators (including geoscientists) to locations that need to investigated, typically through analytical sampling of soil, water, and air. The results of analytical sampling are used to characterize a site in anticipation of an ultimate clean-up; however, a description of the sensory impacts often provides a more compelling impetus for action from the public and policy-makers. Thus, a comprehensive view of the entire site system is necessary in order to identify the parts that will be most useful for addressing the needs of various recipients of data.

The 1–2 page reflection paper is a synthesis activity intended to help students retain the information from their own group's article/chapter and from the other groups' reading materials. While preparing the summary presentations is a formative process, the reflection paper serves as a summative capstone for the student and as a summative assessment for the instructor.


Formative assessments should take place throughout the unit. The unit is designed with instructor-guided student report-outs and opportunities for students to assess each others' work and make suggestions for improvement. Key assessment points are: 1) the introduction of each session when the instructor facilitates summaries of student findings; 2) when students in the expert group discuss their case documents, develop a description of the case as a whole, and characterize the supporting documentation; and 3) when students present their findings to the whole class and the whole class develops the summary table in a discussion facilitated by the instructor.

While groups are working and sharing, the instructor should circulate among the groups, listen in, make suggestions (especially in reference to previously developed class summary results), answer questions from the groups, and ask questions of the groups to ensure that student discussions are substantive.

The summative assessment is intended to evaluate students' understanding of different types of data and the implications of their use in environmental characterizations. Each student will submit a short (1–2 page) paper describing the student's initial impression of the case, changes resulting from the synthesis of additional data and discussion with others, and the impact of different forms of data considered in the overall analysis. The assignment and grading rubric are here: Summative Assessment #2: Case Study Reflection & Rubric (Microsoft Word 54kB May16 16)

References and Resources

Aronson, E., et. al. The Jigsaw Classroom. Beverly Hills: Sage Pub., 1978. Print.

Pedagogic Resources from Pedagogies in Action:

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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 »