PS 45-124
Teaching socio-environmental synthesis to non-traditional college students by linking natural science and social science courses

Wednesday, August 7, 2013
Exhibit Hall B, Minneapolis Convention Center
Gretchen C. Rollwagen-Bollens, School of the Environment, Washington State University Vancouver, Vancouver, WA
Paul Thiers, Political Science, Washington State University Vancouver, Vancouver, WA

This project was part of a multi-institutional teaching study supported by the NSF Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center to assess the effectiveness of teaching socio-environmental synthesis (SES) using different pedagogical approaches in a variety of undergraduate institutional settings.   Washington State University Vancouver serves non-traditional students, who are older (mean age 30), majority female, non-residential, and often the first in their family to attend college.  We developed a 3-week teaching module that linked instruction between an introductory Biology course for science majors and an environmental policy course for social science majors, oriented around a common research question.  Students researched stakeholder positions regarding whether hydroelectric dams on a local river should be re-licensed and/or modified to accommodate Pacific salmon recovery.  We used a “jigsaw” method to create joint conferences in which students represented the positions of stakeholders and experts to advise the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) on the re-licensing decision.  Over the course of the module, each student produced draft and final concept maps of the biophysical and social systems related to dam re-licensing, and a conference report outlining their research and results.  We used these products, along with a post-module survey, to evaluate students’ understanding and abilities in SES.


We conducted this teaching module in Fall 2012 with 12 Biology and 15 Environmental Policy students.  Student-constructed concept maps of the systems associated with dam relicensing prepared prior to the module showed a wide range of thinking and ideas among students both within and between the two classes.  Review of their revised concept maps generated after the module suggested that many students incorporated new or enhanced elements from outside their own discipline or sphere, suggesting the mixed class conference experience influenced students’ appreciation for the diversity of stakeholders and perspectives invested in dam relicensing.  During the conference students were highly engaged in discussions and frequently used their source material to support their arguments.  Many students commented that explicit consideration of scientific information as part of the decision-making process was essential, but that economics and feasibility drove the final decision. Students also expressed increased confidence about their ability to engage in diverse expert/stakeholder interactions in the future.  This pedagogical approach allowed us to expose students to methods and perspectives from different disciplines while examining a locally-relevant and complicated environmental problem.   Next steps include analyzing results across the different institutions to discern patterns of SES learning between students with varying backgrounds.