Gulf Anoxia Course Project

Sadredin C. Moosavi, Walden University
Anne Gerbensky, Target Corporation
Author Profile


Each lab section is divided into 2 groups, research teams and special interests for this activity.

Students on the research teams work in groups to analyze official NOAA reports on the causes of anoxia in the Gulf of Mexico. Each student team seeks to design and present a public policy recommendation for how Minnesota communities can mitigate their role as a source of nitrogen to the Mississippi River system. The teams present their ideas in a town meeting format to their peers with debate of the merits leading to a final vote on which plan to endorse (or a new plan to develop based on elements from each of the plans).

The special interest students are grouped based into populations likely to be affected by the policy recommendations designed by the research teams. They are tasked to research the Gulf Anoxia issue using the same resources as the research teams but while identifying with their special interest. Interests include: Small Family Farmers, Large Agrobusiness Farmers, Fertilizer Industry, Hunters/Fisherman, Property Rights Advocates. During the debate the special interest teams represent their group in the discussion.

All students vote as individuals in the end. Note, another project on climate change uses this same format with the role of research and special interest teams reversed so all students get the presentation experience.

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Learning Goals

Students develop critical thinking, data analysis, and synthesis skills using scientific reports relating to Gulf Anoxia.

Students confront the cost-benefit analysis and impacts/unintended consequences aspects of use of scientific data in crafting policy recommendations.

Students craft and present both oral and written arguments based on scientific data and public policy considerations.

Students practice debate/argument procedures developed in conjunction with professional mass communication/speech standards/norms.

Students gain an appreciation for the role of local economic activities on the larger environment via teleconnections through the Earth system.

Students role play special interest perspectives in discussion of environmental problems.

Context for Use

This activity is conducted in lab sections of 24 with some additional instructions and feedback provided in the large lecture hall setting. Students are divided into 3 research and presentation groups of 4 each or 5 groups of 2-3 students representing special interests. The project is conducted over several weeks with some lab time given to allow for questions and group organization. Other labs still occur during these 2 hour lab periods. Most of the students work must be conducted outside of class time. On the day of the presentation a 2 hour lab period is spent on the presentations, debate, and voting.

Both this activity and its companion climate change debate occur late in the course when most content has been covered. The climate change debate is the final activity of the course (other than the final exam). This activity can be used in larger classes or larger lab sections but the time for presentations places a severe constraint on the number of groups. Group sizes can be raised to accommodate this but groups much larger than 5 become very unwieldy.

In terms of facilities, students appreciate the ability to use PowerPoint presentations and overhead projectors. A white board is also helpful. Nothing beyond normal classroom materials is needed otherwise.

Description and Teaching Materials

In this project, students investigate, develop and debate potential solutions to local contributions to Gulf of Mexico anoxia via excess nitrogen emissions from agricultural activities.

This research/presentation project requires one month of class time to complete (assuming a course that meets once per week in lab). Students are broken into 2 categories: research/presentation groups (Primary Project) and special interest groups (Secondary Project). During each week the groups must accomplish specific tasks leading to the public meeting/debate.

Prior to Week 1:

Students are given URL's to download NOAA pdf files containing the Gulf of Mexico Anoxia report and recommendations. The students are guided to read core descriptions of the Gulf Anoxia problem.

Week 1:

Using lab time, students are broken into research groups and special interest groups during week 1. The research groups of 4 are given the opportunity to investigate specific sources of nitrogen to the system and potential mitigation strategies. Students are encouraged to divide their efforts to allow for more in depth examination of each strategy, with a report back to the group in week 2 for synthesis. Most of this work is done outside of class. The special interest groups do nothing at this time.

Week 2:

Students within each research groups share their written subgroup reports during lab time. The begin synthesis of overall group recommendations and preparation for the public presentation. Subgroup reports are submitted as attachments to a final written group report. Students are assigned to their specific interest groups this week. Each group is asked to investigate and "get in the head" of the group they are to represent. The group is asked to prepare a page of crib notes based on concerns and issues they anticipate the research groups are likely to present and how they will respond during the debate. Again, most work occurs outside of class.

Week 3:

This week the research teams present their project ideas in a structured debate style format. The groups not presenting and special interest groups form the audience. The faculty member serves as moderator/host of the forum. Each research group is given a period to present followed by an opportunity for clarification questions but NOT debate. Once all groups have presented a brief recess is called for groups to confer before the debate phase begins. In this period groups may ask questions/raise concerns of each other. Similarly the special interest groups take part in this phase. After the debate has run its course each person votes on which plan they wish to implement. If a majority is not agreed upon then debate can occur on developing a hybrid proposal. At the conclusion the faculty member gives a brief synopsis of the recommendations the state of Minnesota implemented based on the same reports examined by the students. Students turn in their written papers at this time.

Completion of this activity will require students to download the relevant NOAA pdf files for background research. The remainder of the work is conducted by students using normal classroom materials/resources. The presentation phase is best performed in a room with a white board, podium or lectern, overhead projector and ability to present power point slide shows. The assignment attached is an excerpt from within the class lab book purchased by all students. Web site references needed by the students are contained within.

Assignment Sheet (Microsoft Word 194kB Jun25 06)

Teaching Notes and Tips

This is a highly complex activity that requires students maintain a strict schedule including significant collaboration with their peers outside of class. To be successful the faculty member should be available to answer questions by e-mail or office as the project progresses. Dedicating about half an hour for the students to organize and interface during weeks 1 and 2 is helpful. Students may encounter downloading issues with the pdf files so be prepared and have back up printed copies of the relevant materials. The faculty member should check in with each group each week to make sure they are making sufficient progress and understand the objectives they need to be completing.

On the day of the debate it is important that the room and presentation hardware be operational. If students intend to present using their own lap tops be sure they check out and understand how to interface their system IN ADVANCE. Encourage students to fully role play. Presenters should dress in formal attire while special interests should dress their part as well. The faculty member should also take on a role. ( I personally chose to be the senior Senator from Louisiana whose state's fisheries are being damaged by all this "yankee" pollution. It helps to liven things up and keep the presenters relaxed.) During the debate the faculty member should have each group make bulleted lists of their main points on a white board to ease discussion and comparison during the debate. Keeping control of the clock is also critical for timely dismissal from the activity.

During the actual debate phase the faculty member must facilitate discussion such that all groups and individuals have an opportunity to speak without chaos breaking out. This may require soliciting input from individuals at times or offering clarification of certain points/procedures. It is critical that the faculty member NOT attempt to sway the group toward any specific mitigation strategy.

Since many of these students will not have presented in a group on any subject before (let alone in science) encourage and support their efforts even if they stumble on words or concepts on occasion.

At the end of the activity allow the students to vote as individuals discuss the option/strategy they have chosen and compare this with the state's own recommendations. They are often similar which gives the students validation of their own efforts.

Assessment is complicated while performing all these roles but it can be done if the instructor has prepared and filled out paperwork for each student/group laid out on a table ahead of time. Completion of this paperwork for the interactive part of the grade should be completed as soon as possible after the debate.


Students are assessed both individually and as a group using the rubric in the assignment.

References and Resources

See the assignment materials