October 26, 2016

2016 Earth science election activity for students

Posted by Laura Guertin

(public domain image from Wikimedia Commons)

(public domain image from Wikimedia Commons)

There are some topics that are not part of the typical syllabus in an Earth science course, but when there is a significant event taking place in our nation (such as an election for the next president of the United States of America), how can we as instructors not find the time and take the opportunity to address this? Even in our Earth and space science courses, there are ways that current events can be brought to students.

I echo the sadness of my fellow scientists (but am not surprised) how some of the grand challenges in Earth science – climate change, energy, water – were not mentioned during the Presidential debates. Where do these candidates stand on science? And do my students have any ideas? Time to bring the election to the classroom!

I designed a two-part exercise for my students that focused on exploring the candidates and any statements they have made on Earth science. I told students they were to leave their political affiliations at the classroom door, and I was not there to influence them to change their intended vote or their political party. I told them the challenge was to learn more about all of the candidates by researching their position statements, voting history, speeches and activities back in their states where they served in leadership roles, etc.

We carried out “Part A” of the exercise in class, where each of my students had a laptop to work with. The students were randomly divided into teams:

  • Team Hillary Clinton
  • Team Tim Kaine
  • Team Donald Trump
  • Team Mike Pence
  • Team Stein/Baraka
  • Team Johnson/Weld

The students were told to research their assigned candidate and where he/she stood on some of the grand challenges in Earth science. I specifically selected global warming/climate change, energy, water, and oceans for this course (the most relevant topics to our existing course topics). Food security and population were other challenges I considered for exploration and would have added if I had a course section of more than 25 students.

Each team had a Google Doc for their candidate that I had prepared and shared for them to summarize their findings, along with the sources, for each grand challenge. They had the entire 75-minute class period to work on this. On a personal note, I have to say, I was really impressed with how the students collaborated, and not surprised that they realized how little they know about this election. And not one student griped to me about the candidate they were “stuck” researching.
I provided several websites for students to start their searches:

sciencedebateAnd the best website for students to start with is the one from ScienceDebate.org, a website that presents how the candidates for president have responded to “America’s top 20 science, engineering, tech, health & environmental issues in 2016.” At a minimum, every scientist and student should check out this site.

“Part B” of the exercise involved the students being shared in to “View Only” mode of all the Google Docs for all of the candidates. Outside of class, students had to answer the following questions:

Climate Change/Global Warming – Who would be the best Presidential and Vice Presidential candidates, and why? (and you can mix candidates across political parties)

Energy – Who would be the best Presidential and Vice Presidential candidates, and why?

Water – Who would be the best Presidential and Vice Presidential candidates, and why?

Oceans – Who would be the best Presidential and Vice Presidential candidates, and why?

Based upon just these scientific global challenges, who would you vote for in the election, and why? (again, please keep your current political affiliation and feelings aside – I am not telling you who to vote for, we are just looking at who is the strongest candidate for Earth system science)

My students were all over the place with this final piece, but I was really pleased to see some reflection go into their responses.

By formatting the two-part exercise this way, I kept my position neutral and did not have any student openly admit to their political views or opinions, respecting their individual beliefs. Although this was a “safe” environment for myself and the individual students, I also missed an opportunity for a broader classroom discussion. Feeling that I would have had a bit of a struggle keeping a full classroom discussion focused, respectful and non-threatening, I felt this was the best option for me to accomplish my goal of getting students to learn where the candidates stand on science – certainly, only a piece of how they should weigh their vote.

Have you introduced the election into your science courses this fall? If so, please share your approach and any valuable resources you have come across!