Combatting “Problem Fatigue” Using BioInteractive Case Studies in an AP Environmental Science Course
As a high school environmental science teacher, I am very aware that my class can be a little bit of a bummer. We learn about environmental problem after environmental problem, most of them linked directly to human activities. To prevent my students from just throwing their hands up in resignation because of “problem fatigue,” I focus a lot on solutions. To make those conversations about solutions more robust, I try to include how solutions are developed, justified, implemented, and evaluated. I also explicitly teach how scientific experimentation plays a role within these processes.
When we begin talking about solutions to environmental problems at the start of the year, my students will usually offer up knee-jerk “Why don’t we just …?” reactions. For example, a discussion of deforestation might evoke “Why don’t we just ban the cutting of all trees?” Or, when looking at the environmental problems associated with high tourism in national parks, students might ask, “Why don’t we just close the park to all visitors?” While I’m thrilled by my students’ enthusiasm and willingness to share, their solutions at this stage in the year are usually neither feasible nor realistic. The students are missing the need to consider multiple stakeholders as well as to fully understand the proposed solution’s advantages and disadvantages (e.g., environmental, sociocultural, and economic pros and cons).
While the skills of proposing and justifying solutions are useful for all students, they are specifically targeted within AP Environmental Science. In the corresponding “Course and Exam Description” (College Board 2020), Practice 7, “Environmental Solutions,” provides a continuum of skills for the students to tackle:
- Describe environmental problems.
- Describe potential responses or approaches to environmental problems.
- Describe disadvantages, advantages, or unintended consequences for potential solutions.
- Use data and evidence to support a potential solution.
- Make a claim that proposes a solution to an environmental problem in an applied context.
- Justify a proposed solution by explaining potential advantages.
I want my students to practice these skills in the context of real science, and that is where BioInteractive resources come in.
The Case Study
One of the BioInteractive resources I use is the Interactive Case Study for The Effects of Fungicides on Bumble Bee Colonies. This interactive case study focuses on a short video about how fungicides negatively affect bee populations, during which students answer questions at embedded pause points. The video includes the researcher’s hypothesis, his experimental methods, and the data collected. The findings of the experiment indicate that fungicide sprayed on crops is carried back to the bees’ nest. There, it interferes with the pollen stores, thus harming the developing bee larvae; as a result, bee populations decline.
At the end of the video, the researcher, Shawn Steffan, makes a clear statement about how his experimentation can illuminate a possible solution to the problem. He states, “We’re not saying that fungicides should need to be banned in any sense. But there are things that can be done. You can spray before bloom. You can spray after bloom.” For this lesson on developing environmental solutions, I want my students to have the experience of developing their own solutions before hearing the one presented in the interactive video case study. So, we stop before this moment, when the case study pauses to ask the question, “How could farmers use the knowledge gained in this study to reduce possible harmful effects of fungicides on bees?”
At this point, I have my students design two environmental solutions: a piece of legislation and a public education campaign. Both tasks require students to consider not only the findings of the experiment, but also the needs of the various stakeholders, such as farmers, pesticide manufacturers, and conservation scientists. The “Course and Exam Description” guide for AP Environmental Science suggests: “Students will benefit from opportunities to practice describing the development process for legislation enacted to mitigate environmental problems and the effects of the legislation on the various stakeholders.”
Here is the general flow of the lesson described above.
- I open with the question: “What makes a solution to an environmental problem a good solution?” We do a quick think-pair-share activity to start brainstorming ideas. Mostly this results in good “nonexamples” about solutions that are unrealistic or too costly.
- I share with students the curriculum expectations for AP Environmental Science Practice 7, “Environmental Solutions,” and mention that they will have to apply these skills on the AP Exam in May.
- I briefly introduce the case study about fungicides and bees. At this point in the year, we have learned about the role of pesticides in industrialized agriculture. I give an overview of the tasks at hand so that expectations are set before we begin.
On white board with marker:
- Create a piece of legislation that would regulate the use of fungicides to lessen their impact on bee populations.
- Who are the stakeholders impacted by your piece of legislation?
- Give your piece of legislation an official-sounding name.
- Describe how it works.
- Describe advantages, disadvantages, and any possible unintended consequences on your legislation.
- What challenges might make implementation difficult?
On lab table with chalk:
- If you cannot pass your piece of legislation, you might have to rely more on educating the public about the issue.
- Describe some ways in which you can educate the public about the issue of fungicides and bees.
- Describe advantages, disadvantages, and any possible unintended consequences of your plan.
- What challenges might make implementation difficult?
- I use the graphic from the Understanding Global Change Click & Learn to orient my students’ attention to environmental issues via a systems-thinking lens. The graphic focuses their attention on three things: 1) the Earth system as it occurs naturally, 2) human actions that have affected that system, and 3) the measurable changes/effects of those actions on the system. The image below shows how this graphic connects to the case study. I use this graphic throughout the year for other lessons too.
- I include a short chat about bee life cycle and pollination basics (e.g., pollen, nectar, honey, larvae, etc.). I don’t want any misconceptions about these concepts to get in the way of our work on solutions.
- We do the Interactive Case Study for The Effects of Fungicides on Bumble Bee Colonies together as a whole class, pausing to answer the questions that are embedded within the video. As mentioned above, we stop after we discuss this question: “How could farmers use the knowledge gained in this study to reduce possible harmful effects of fungicides on bees?” This question sets us up nicely for our group-work tasks.
- The students work in their lab groups for 20 minutes: 10 minutes for their legislation and 10 minutes for their educational campaign.
- Each group presents their ideas, and we have a conversation about pros, cons, and any unintended consequences. We allow each group to try to justify their solution by drawing on evidence from the interactive case study video or from previous lessons.
- I end with two discussion questions that explicitly tie back to the practice of scientific experimentation:
- What role did scientific experimentation play in the development of your solutions?
- How can you modify the bee/fungicide experiment to evaluate the effectiveness of your solution?
My students are really engaged with this lesson. It is collaborative and requires strong communication and critical thinking skills, as well as some creativity. But of course, there are still gaps in their thinking, especially when their legislation and education campaigns focus on seasons. For example, the “Bee Seasonal Act” created by one group “limits the use of fungicide during spring and summer seasons while bees are in their reproductive stages.” However, many crops also flower during these seasons. The subsequent discussion centered on the need to consider the seasonal changes in the life cycles of both the bee and the flowering crop.
I liked the fact that several groups used important vocabulary from our lessons on agriculture, saying that one of the cons of their legislation might be decreased crop “yields.” Taking that small term and using it in a novel context is a good sign of strong learning. I also appreciated one group focusing on integrated pest management as an aspect of both their legislation and their education program, again drawing connections to previous content. These are small moments in the flow of the lesson, but ones that I definitely celebrated with the students at the time. A surprisingly fun aspect of the lesson was the students being creative as they named their piece of proposed legislation: the “Beez-Nezz Law,” the “Bee-Ware Act,” and (my personal favorite) the “Winnie Compromise.”
Many of their educational campaigns centered, not surprisingly, on the power of social media. We also had lots of groups focus on targeting younger people through cartoons, elementary school programs, and even using characters from movies and cereal boxes. While the creation of the legislation required more focus on stakeholders and pros/cons, the educational campaign really pushed the students to synthesize all the information they had learned into a concise and meaningful message.
The Interactive Case Study for The Effects of Fungicides on Bumble Bee Colonies allows my students to analyze a controlled experiment and to determine how it informs the development of a particular environmental solution. There are two other BioInteractive resources that I use to strengthen these skills:
- I use the short film From Ants to Grizzlies to emphasize how to apply the findings of an experiment in one context (Daniel Simberloff and E.O. Wilson’s experiments in the Florida Keys) to develop solutions in an entirely new context (protected area planning and habitat corridors on land).
- I also use the “Tracking Genetically Modified Mosquitoes” activity for students to explore how experimentation can help evaluate the effectiveness of an enacted environmental solution.
These resources are the backbone of our early learning about environmental solutions, giving the students a framework for working with solutions in later units. It is my goal that, later in the curriculum when we talk about high-level nuclear waste in our energy unit, students can use these skills to pause and think about the science, the stakeholders, and the pros/cons before shouting out, “Why don’t we just shoot it all to the moon!”
Scott Sowell is in his 26th year in science education, currently teaching AP Environmental Science and Senior Research at Darnell-Cookman Middle/High School in Jacksonville, FL. He was awarded the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching in 2019. When not in the classroom, he loves spending time in Florida’s many state parks.
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