Resource Database: Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences

Title Debating Environmental Issues
Originator Geoff Petts
Department School of Geography, University of Birmingham, B15 2TT
Tel. +44 (0)121 414 7455
Fax. +44 (0)121 414 5528
E-mail g.e.petts@bham.ac.uk

Introduction
A first-year module on environmental issues, delivered to a group of 170-180 students, had hitherto been delivered as a series of lectures with resulting limited learning outcomes. A new structure has been designed and piloted for the module which provides students with the opportunity to: undertake an in-depth investigation of a key environmental issue affecting the UK gain experience of 'group work' including (a) the organisation and structuring of research and (b) the focusing and direction of presentations (oral and written) to benefit from exposure to different perceptions of, and attitudes to, environmental risks.

To achieve these aims, the 25 contact hours for this module are divided so that students receive 14 hours of lectures, three one-hour video sessions, and four 2-hour debate sessions. The debate sessions form part of the group project work described in detail below.

The context of the group project
The scenario presented to the students is that, with growing concern for the environmental future of the UK, they have been commissioned by the Government to hold a series of debates on the impact of global and local environmental change on the economy of the UK to the year 2025. Working in groups of 4-5 the students are required to synthesise available information and present an evaluation of the significance of a major environmental issue for the UK. Three groups are allocated to a topic by random selection. The sort of topics students might be asked to research are:

  1. Incineration is/is not an environmentally-acceptable process for waste management
  2. Britain is/is not doing all it can to control emissions of greenhouse gases.
  3. Investment in genetic engineering should/should not be promoted as the basis for advancing environmentally-friendly agriculture.
  4. Plantation forestry is/is not a necessary component of sustainable environmental management.
    Each group is required to develop a work programme and allocate responsibilities to each member (these could be based on i-iv given below or any other structure that they consider appropriate). For their given topic each group should:
  1. Establish the current situation and review the history of the problem
  2. Make predictions for the year 2025, supported by appropriate scientific evidence;
  3. Evaluate the environmental, economic and political significance for the UK;
  4. Establish the Best Practicable Environmental Approach - in (a) for waste management; (b) for controlling emissions of greenhouse gases; (c) for environmentally-friendly agriculture; and (d) for forestry management.
Each group is required to prepare a presentation for an audience of intelligent but not necessarily scientifically literate politicians!

The debates
Debates take place in 2-hour sessions, with three debates (on linked topics) in each session. Each 40 minute debate involves a formal part of 30 minutes (12-15 students, see below) and a 10-minute open session. Thus each 2-hour session will involve 36-45 students directly plus others participating in the open sessions.

Each 40-minute debate takes the form of two oral presentations (groups 1 and 2) each of 10 minutes duration using overhead transparencies, followed by a 20 minute discussion session directed by group 3 ('the question masters') but including on opportunity for general participation.

Three days before the debate the Groups are allocated (at random) to the different tasks: (1) make the presentation supporting the motion (2) make the presentation against the motion, and (3) leading the debate by asking 4 different questions (two to each of the other Groups).

Assessment
Each student is assessed on the group's performance in the debate (the depth of research, quality of presentation, and teamwork) (10%). Assessment is made on two primary criteria: Does the Group

demonstrate a sound understanding of the topic? Has the Group isolated the key issue(s)? Groups also gain from the quality and clarity of the presentations and the structure of the questions.

In addition, each Group produces a two A4-page (12 point font, double spaced) summary of the key issue (as perceived by the group) in the form of a Press Release and a separate bibliography of sources (15%).

Evaluation
The course evaluations suggest that many students love it (a majority) but some hate it! Most find it stimulating (and fun!) but some found group-work difficult (a few impossible!) and presentation to a large audience frightening!. I am sure they all gained from the experience; and those groups which gave most got most out (nothing new !).
Changes have been made for next year - the revised version is given above - and these should help those who did not enjoy the experience. The main changes have been: 1. increased size of groups (from 3-4); 2. reduced number of topics in a 2-hour session from 4 to 3; and 3. changed to a formal 'debate' format from an informal 'seminar' format (one making a formal presentation, the second asking questions, and the third providing the answers). The debate format was requested by students as it provides a more formal and directed framework.

Keywords:

Debate
Environmental issues
Large student numbers
Oral presentation
Projects
Written presentation


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