Ethical Restraint: Environmental Justice Scenarios

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Students will work with groups to describe both ethical and unethical approaches to solving environmental science problems and describe how people with different worldviews may react to scientific findings.

Big Idea

Controlled scientific experiments are sometimes impossible to conduct because of ethical restraints. Observational studies can still be a good way to find correlation, but how people react to that information remains colored by their worldview and ethics.


This lesson is a direct follow-up to the Environmental Ethics and Worldview and acts as a great segue into the Environmental Policy lesson.  

In this lesson, students will evaluate hypothetical scenarios revolving around problems of environmental justice.  It’s important for me that my students consider these types of issues in detail because, as I described in the previous lesson, the majority of my students in central Los Angeles are affected by environmental justice issues in one form or another.  

An additional objective of this lesson is that my students can understand how an observational study is sometimes preferable to a controlled experiment.  While the necessity of observational studies was explained in the previous lesson (some research questions involve too many variables that are out of the control of investigating scientists), I think reinforcing that point with examples of why ethical considerations sometimes make controlled experiments impossible really drives home the point in a way that students find relatable and personally compelling.  


Connection to Standard:

In this lesson, students will develop claims and counterclaims, utilize scientific vocabulary, integrate different sources of info to address a problem, and present and defend their claims in a class discussion.


Diving In

25 minutes

Although there’s a definite value in having familiar, solid groups established in this class, I feel like students might miss out on the opportunity to talk directly with some other students beside those in their group.  Since this topic is pretty thought-provoking, I think this lesson is a good opportunity to mix things up a bit and have different groups.  

Since we have 8 groups of four students each, I have all students count off from 1-8, then have all the ones sit at one table, the twos at the next table and so on.  I then direct their attention to the last part of the note sheet from the previous lesson which contains the instructions for completing their group work.  

Please note that this lesson uses the second half of the powerpoint presentation from the previous lesson.  In my case, I know the students are going to enjoy the discussion because both scenarios are fairly controversial, so I introduce the content about observational (except the scenarios themselves) in the previous day.  If you prefer, you can teach the shorter version of the powerpoint attached to this lesson on the same day as the students discuss the scenarios, but I feel that doesn’t leave enough time for the students to work as a group AND have a good group discussion.  Use your discretion and pace according to your needs.   

Whether you precede the scenarios with the slides about observational studies or have presented them during the previous lesson, when it comes time for the students to dive in, we look at the last two slides of the powerpoint to introduce the scenarios.  (Please see the reflection for a more detailed discussion of some of the points my students made in their exploration of each scenario.)  

I then ask the odd-numbered groups to look at scenario 1 and the even-numbered groups to look at scenario 2.  I let students know that I expect them to answer each of the four questions as they pertain to their scenario and to be prepared to discuss them with the class.  I allow about 20 minutes for the initial preparation because more ideas will come to light as the whole group reconvenes to discuss.


30 minutes

After 20 minutes, I ask each group to wrap up their small discussions and we have a larger group discussion.  Since the groups are not students’ regular groups, I don’t worry about following the usual format and rubric I have for other discussions.  These scenarios are fairly compelling and I don’t have much trouble eliciting participation from a wide variety of students.  

We then discuss each question for each scenario.  We first discuss scenario 1 entirely, and then move on to scenario 2.  I feel it’s better to address each scenario separately rather than go back and forth as we go through each question because even when students weren’t assigned a specific scenario, they’re free to jump in to the ongoing discussion and discussing them separately just keeps students more focused as opposed to jumping between scenarios.  

Although the questions can be found at the end of the notesheet from the previous lesson, I'll include them here: 

  1. Without considering the ethical problems in your scenario, how would you design a controlled experiment to answer the relevant scientific questions?
  2. How would you design an ethical, observational study to answer those same questions?
  3. What kinds of data would show correlation between the variables in question?
  4. Assuming the data does show correlation, how do you think people with different worldviews would react to that data? 

The final question (#4) for each scenario is intentional on my part as a “teaser” for the next lesson, Environmental Policy, and sets the groundwork for students to understand how policy doesn’t arrive ready made, but is rather built by people driven by their personal ethics and worldview.  Additionally, this question begins to build students' capacity for problem-solving, a running them throughout the year as I hope to help students see that, although our environmental problems are challenging, it's not all "gloom and doom" because focused, committed, and caring citizens can become "part of the solution".