Environmental Science vs. Environmentalism

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Students will be able to use the internet to investigate a claim about the difference between environmental science and environmentalism, conduct a short correspondence with environmental scientists using appropriate language and tone, and present their findings to their class in short presentations.

Big Idea

By definition, environmental science and environmentalism are not the same thing. In this project, students will investigate environmental scientists and environmental organizations to understand the relationship between them.


This lesson is a project that asks students to do some internet research to investigate the veracity of the assertion in their textbook that environmental science and environmentalism are not the same thing.  While this may be plainly true given that they are two things described by two different vocabulary terms, I feel it is worth investigating because the author of the text seems to go out of their way to distinguish the two (which is not terribly surprising understanding that a national textbook needs to be careful with the potentially volatile political differences from state to state that may inform people’s worldview on environmental matters).


In this lesson, each group of four students will divide the two sides of the question: two members of the group will research a specific environmental organization and the other two will research an environmental scientist.   

The two halves of the group will make their own powerpoint presentations and the entire group presents them together.  They then make a concluding statement as a group regarding whether or not their environmental organization incorporated environmental science into their activism, and the extent to which the environmental scientist has an environmentalist worldview.        


In short: this is a short research project that culminates in a presentation that requires familiarity with technology and critical thinking to produce.

It is important to note here that those students researching environmental scientists will be attempting to contact and initiate a correspondence with an environmental scientist, most likely a professor at a university.  As I discuss in my reflection, this is one of the most rewarding aspects of this lesson for students as they turn what could be a basic research project into an authentic discussion with a professional in a scientific field.  Although this requirement is not part of the environmental organization component of the project, it could easily be modified to require students to contact someone in the public relations or volunteer/member outreach wing of an organization so that all students could benefit form this opportunity to conduct a correspondence with a professional.

Alignment to Standards:

In completing this project, students will conduct internet research and integrate information from multiple sources to answer a question.  Students will use digital media to produce a presentation and then clearly and succinctly present the information they uncovered to an audience of their peers. 


Getting Started

25 minutes

This lesson is a follow-up to the What is Environmental Science? and Environmental Ethics and Worldview lessons.  Since students are familiar with the divide between environmental science and environmentalism as well as the concept of worldview (and its potential to color one’s perspective on environmental issues), it’s fairly easy to introduce the assignment.  If you haven’t already gone over these concepts, it may be difficult to start this project without a bit more frontloading of information.

I start the lesson by quickly asking students to explain the distinction between environmental science and environmentalism.  I then ask them how they might potentially overlap, to which students respond (with guidance if necessary) that:

  1. environmentalist organizations may use the findings of environmental scientists to support their arguments and guide their activism

  2. environmental scientists may hold environmentalist worldviews (and in fact, may have gotten in to the field in the first place because of these views)

Following this quick debrief of the key concepts of the previous lessons, I distribute the project description and rubric to students.  I then explain that students will have to split their groups of four into two smaller groups of pairs of students, with each pair completing half of the project.  

As a consideration, I think the environmental scientist half of the project may be better suited to the more academically advanced side of a group if its possible to make such a distinction.  Both sides of the project can be challenging, but as I mention in the reflection, the requirement that students email and communicate with an environmental scientist can be difficult for ELLs and students who read below grade level.  

I then share my example presentation (with apologies to Sesame Street and the Muppets) so that students have a good idea of what I expect in a final product.  It also gets quite a few laughs (and a few confused students, unfortunately, but most seem to get that it’s an example and not real research).

After I clear up any questions students may have, I let them know that there is a sign-up sheet where they must write down the organization or scientist they plan to research (this is so no two groups are researching the same individual or organization).

Once groups have signed up, they get computers (I also allow them to use their cellphones to conduct research) and begin working in earnest.


Independent Work

180 minutes

This project is very time consuming.  I suppose you could just assign it to students and trust that they could do it on their own time, but that’s not really the case with my students.  As it was, I ended up giving a whole week of class time to this project to allow them time to conduct the research and then put their presentations together.  I assigned it on a Friday and gave them the entire following week to complete it, with presentations on the next Monday.  

Part of what makes it necessary to set aside so much time for the project is the requirement for students researching an environmental scientist to communicate with that scientist and ask them questions about their environmental views.  It may take time for scientists to reply to students’ inquiries.  I encourage students to email the scientist early in the project and to email more than one scientist in case their first choice doesn’t respond (they’re environmental scientists, after all… they could be in the middle of the rainforest or Antarctica). 

Please note that I ask my students doing this part of the project to CC me on their correspondence with their environmental scientist.  This helps me to monitor what they are actually saying in their correspondence, and also serves as a record of when they actually attempted contact.  It's quite a different thing if students didn't receive a response from a scientist that they contacted the night before the project was due than if they had sent that initial email at the start of the project.  Additionally, if I am CC'd on a correspondence, it allows me to make private comments to my student and for them to ask me questions if they're not sure about some aspect of what the environmental scientist had written them. 

As students work on the project over the course of the week, I walk from group to group checking in with their progress, providing guidance, encouragement, and answering questions as necessary.  Unfortunately, a lot of this time is just keeping some students on track when they say things like, “I’m going to finish it at home”.  It seems like a constant struggle to balance the need to provide class time for the project to assist those students that really need my assistance with the fact that some students feel that the extra class time just gives them time to socialize.  I still struggle with this, but hope that checking in with each group once or twice a day minimizes the amount of time wasted.    

In terms of what kinds of assistance students need, a lot just need initial guidance with what to input into a search engine to get started.  I encourage them to keep it basic and local with a query such as, “environmental organization in California”, or “environmental non-profit in Los Angeles”.  Most environmental groups have F.A.Q.s or “about us” sections of their web pages that allow students to quickly gather the required information.

For the environmental scientist side of the project, I encourage students to go to the website of a local university or their “dream college” and find the department of environmental science, biology, or ecology.  Most universities have faculty lists with short bios that allow students to quickly gather the required information.  This has an added benefit of allowing students to explore departments and different majors at different universities to help them get a sense of just how many options for study exist at the university level.  I had several students get pretty excited just from learning what classes a specific scientist teaches.  

Some students will also need help synthesizing the information they collected into their own words, especially because the information they uncover may be presented with a lot of academic vocabulary.  Again, the most advanced students won’t really need much help with this, but since many do, it’s the reason I set aside so much class time for the project.  





90 minutes

On the day of the presentations I allow groups to volunteer to sign up for specific times to present.  If no groups volunteer to be the first group, I randomly pick a group and then go clockwise from there.  

I ask students to keep their presentations under 10 minutes so we can get to all 8 groups in one period.  This usually isn’t a problem since most groups seem to want to get it done as soon as possible.  As groups are presenting, I assess their presentations using this rubric.  

When all groups finish, I ask the class to engage in a short discussion of the question: “could environmental science or environmentalism exist without the other?”  Hopefully this gets students to take one last look at the distinction and reflect on what they heard from other groups and what they learned in completing their own project.