Environmental Decision Making: The Basis for Environmental Literacy

The Declaration, Volume 4, Number 2 : May 2001  [Curriculum]

By Indira Nair and Sharon Jones

“The crisis of sustainability and the problems of education are in large measure a crisis of knowledge. But is the problem as is commonly believed, that we do not know enough? Or, that we know too much? Or, that we do not know enough about some things and too much about other things? ….”
~ David Orr [1]

(Environmental literacy is) how to ask three questions to the experts that include “what can happen,” “what are the odds,” and “how do you know.”
~ Stephen Schneider [2]

One of the most influential factors in shaping sensibilities and language is the need to make decisions in daily activities. It is in connecting with these decisions that environmental education can make lasting behavioral changes. Environmental literacy, an essential part of undergraduate education, is best taught with an approach that weaves together the necessary disciplinary knowledge within a problem-based context.

For the past ten years, we have been developing an environmental literacy (EL) course at Carnegie Mellon (CM) and Rose Hulman Institute of Technology (RHIT). At CM, it is a general studies interdisciplinary course taken by students of diverse majors. At RHIT, the students in the course are engineers. The objective of the course is to enable students to make informed decisions in the context of environmental issues relating to daily conduct and participation in society. To this end, we are in the process of completing a web-based teacher’s text with support from the National Science Foundation. We are developing this text with a modular structure so that teachers may incorporate relevant units in courses as appropriate.

We define EL as a capability for a contextual and detailed understanding of an environmental issue in order to enable analysis, synthesis, evaluation, and decision making at a “citizen’s level.” A survey of our colleagues helped us define the basis of the scientific part of EL as three broad principles and their consequences: conservation of mass, conservation of energy, and an understanding of risk and uncertainty . We use a systems approach, being explicit about the scientific definitions and principles as models of the world, being continually refined, discussions of scientific and technological uncertainty, as well as of our values, behavior, ethos and ethics that influence the environment.

College students come into such a course with varying degrees of knowledge and comprehension about the environment. They bring passion, emotions and preconceived opinions. A central responsibility of any course is conceptual change [3]. We need to recognize the knowledge they bring, and equip them with a framework for competent and informed decision making about the environment. Concept maps are a great tool for enabling students to express their prior knowledge explicitly, to detect and correct any misconceptions, and to build and integrate new knowledge [4,5]. We begin each major topic by asking the students first to express their conceptual network on the topic in a map of some kind.

The learning environment is one of active, problem-based, experiential learning. Students are encouraged to discuss their own value systems, and behaviors in activities and decisions that affect the environment. For example, they keep logs of their water, electricity and paper use for a length of time, and then calculate how much water the local water authority handled for them during their four college years. They also estimate the amount of CO2 their electricity use put into the air and how many trees contributed to their paper use during this period. In many of the assignments, students work in groups. Other decision-making projects include: Life Cycle Analysis of consumer products and role-playing of case studies. Salmon in the Pacific northwest, Municipal Landfill Siting and the “Kyoto Conference” are some of these cases.

The core knowledge is taught in terms of systems. We identified a fundamental core of knowledge areas (principles and methods) that is a sufficiently comprehensive set so that the problem area of “environment” can be understood without disciplinary expertise. These core knowledge areas include an understanding of:

o interaction of the atmosphere, lithosphere, hydrosphere, biosphere, and anthroposphere
o first and second laws of thermodynamics, practiced as energy balances
o law of conservation of mass practiced as materials balances
o ecological structures and biological evolution
o interaction between population growth and resource consumption
o industrial ecology, and life cycle analysis frameworks
o risk, focusing on how quantitative risk is calculated, how it is communicated, and how it can be managed
o regulatory and ethical frameworks

The course seeks to provide students with the ability to: apply a systems approach and understand the limitations of system models; build from their initial understanding of an issue including using reliable sources of information and being able to discriminate among the data; and, analyze, synthesize, and evaluate alternate solutions.

In his book, The Web of Life, Fritjof Capra defines a system as “an integrated whole whose essential properties arise from the relationships between its parts” [6]. Capra lists the properties of systems as “networks, boundaries, cycles, flow-through, development (growth), and dynamic balance.” This succinct list of characteristics guides our presentation of concepts for environmental literacy. Concept maps provide a natural venue for representing the system.

After an introduction to literacy and the environment as a whole, through an exercise emphasizing their own definitions and values, we set the context for the subject matter in terms of seven systems: the sun-earth (or atmospheric) system, energy systems, material systems, ecological system, ethical systems, institutional systems, and risk systems.

Two exercises are included below in an appendix to illustrate the range. The first is the exercise students begin in the very first class meeting. The second is a long-term project on comparing two consumer products using a life cycle analysis [7]. We reproduce these verbatim to convey the total flavor of what we do. A forthcoming paper describes the course in more detail. [8]

We assessed learning at both schools. Not surprisingly, we found the project-based segments to be most effective in producing lasting learning. Students develop their thinking and examine their decisions in personal and professional contexts. One student said about the course: “What this class has given me are the tools to find out information in order to make educated decisions about how my actions affect the environment. But more importantly, I think, this class has given me the confidence to believe that I indeed have those tools, and I am capable of making intelligent decisions about the environment in which I live. And the ability to make the decisions I will face is as important as the final decision itself.”

Currently, we are struggling with the design and implementation of the web-based text, to be accessible to teachers and students in slightly different forms. For example, the students’ version needs to start with a question about their own conceptual framework about the topic at hand, often in terms of a blank flowchart or concept map they have to fill in. The teachers’ version contains our own “answers” to this as well as observations about how students tend to answer, and some hints for follow-up discussions, culled from our decade of experience.

[1] Orr, D.W., Ecological Literacy : Education and the Transition to a Postmodern World, Albany, NY : SUNY Press, 1992.
[2] Schneider, S., “Defining Environmental Literacy,” TREE, 12(11), 1997, page 457.
[3] Atman, C.J. and I. Nair, “Engineering in Context: An Empirical Study of Freshmen Students’ Conceptual Frameworks,” Journal of Engineering Education, October 1996.
[4] Novak J.D., and D.B. Gowin, Learning How to Learn, New York: Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, MA 1984.
[5] Hyerle, D., Visual Tools for Constructive Knowledge, Alexandraia VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1996.
[6] Capra, F., The Web of Life : A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems, New York, NY: Anchor Books, 1996
[7] Nair, I. “LCA and Green Design: A Context for Teaching Design, Environment and Ethics,” Indira Nair, Journal of Engineering Education, October 1998.
[8] Nair, I., Jones, S., and White, J. “A Course to Enhance Environmental Literacy,” Journal of Engineering Education, Accepted, March 2001.


1. Beginning Exercise

Understanding Environmental Issues
Work to be discussed in class, then handed in (paper copy), one per group (if assignment exercise is a group exercise), must be hand-signed by all group members.
(1) Define “the environment.” Write a short paragraph on the definition(s). Include a discussion of the origin of the word, alternate views on the definition and your views on the definition of the environment.
(2) What is an environmental problem? Why are environmental problems on the forefront of news now?
(3) Name ten environmental issues that concern you.
(4) List criteria by which you would classify environmental issues. What are some of the values these criteria express? (Define “values” as you wish)
(5) Rank these criteria and give them weights: For each criterion, describe clearly how you considered its importance. If you had 100 points to divide up among these to decide which should get most attention (not necessarily spending), how would you assign these points to the criteria? Present in the form of a summary table.

Brief Description of Criterion
Weight (sum=100)

(6) Based on these criteria, rank the ten environmental problems, and indicate their weights on a 100-point scale. For each problem, describe clearly how criteria apply. Then, present these in the form of a summary table in order of decreasing importance:

Environmental Issue Criteria Most Applicable (be clear) Weight

(7) Which three of these environmental issues would you consider important for the newly elected President of the United States? What are your reasons for choosing these?
(8) Now, suppose you have just been elected as the Mayor of Pittsburgh, and the city’s environment is one of your priorities for taking action. Would the above answers change? Briefly describe how and why.


Spring 2001
66-210 : Science and Technology for the Environment
PROJECT: What is a “green product?”
LIFE CYCLE ANALYSIS (LCA) to determine Environmental Friendliness

Preliminary exercise

1. The entire life cycle of any device may be thought broadly to consist of the following general stages: (1) raw material extraction, (2) refining of material (3) manufacture (4) distribution (5) use (6) disposal (7) waste management. There are several transportation links between and during these stages.

Draw the life cycle of an Aluminum can as described in Natural Capital, Chapter 3. Show the geographic locations and approximate distances of transportation on the figure. What are the routine emissions from this life cycle?

What might be ways to reduce the environmental impacts of this life cycle?

Product LCA Project
Do this assignment in groups of 5 or 6. You must work in interdisciplinary groups.

“Environmentally friendly” products or “green” products is a concept that has gained a lot of attention in the past 10 years or so. As a way of determining which of two equivalent products cause less pollution and environmental impacts, an analysis called the Product Life Cycle Analysis (PLCA, or LCA for short) has been used.

In this project you will conduct a PLCA on two products that are alternatives for the same use, e.g., paper napkins and cloth napkins. [Several readings are on e-reserve and there are websites listed on Blackboard to guide and aid your work.]

A. Select a pair of alternatives for a consumer product with a life of 0+ -10 years. Possibilities include:
– glass bottles and plastic bottles for soft drinks
– cloth diapers and plastic diapers
– incandescent and fluorescent light bulbs
– disposable and rechargeable batteries
– liquid and powder detergents
– alternate packaging materials
– automobiles

B. Draw a flowchart showing the material, energy and residual flows.

C. Do PLCA for the 2 products.
This is to give you experience in estimating:
(1) the resources- materials and energy – embodied in products we use daily;
(2) the waste flows and emissions to the environment during manufacture, use and ultimate disposal of the product.
[Use concept maps, tables, etc., to show the environmental burdens/impacts, and other factors consumers usually consider when buying a product.]

D. Based on the experience of your analysis and personal experience, develop a set of criteria for deciding on the “better product choice” from the point of view of resource conservation and environmental quality. What other factors would you consider besides these two?
o Propose the weight each of these criteria should have.
o Outline the set of values that you considered in this part.
o How might the criteria (or, the weights) change with the culture of the society?
o What may be the problems in implementing the factors determined by these criteria into the design of products?
Determine which is more environmentally friendly. Explain your reason as you would explain to a member of the public who does not have your expertise in environmental impacts.

F. Look at any two products you have around for any environmental label. Briefly describe what you learn from the labels. Design a logo and short slogan for the green product that you worked on.

G. Write and present a report on the project. The project report should show the detailed calculation of the LCA including your assumptions, and approximations, the factors you considered in your assessment, the difficulties and uncertainties in the analysis.
A detailed discussion at the end should include the problems with doing the LCA, to what extent it helps consumers make informed choices.

H. Formal oral presentation: Present your results in a formal presentation in class. Each group presentation should be no more than 5 minutes. The presentation should be a clear summary of your work, including the uncertainties, assumptions, etc. The discussion on page 25 -26 of the SETAC Chapter 2 should provide a good guideline in preparing the presentation.

Indira Nair is Professor of Engineering and Public Policy and Vice Provost for Education at Carnegie Mellon University. Her current teaching includes courses in environmental science and engineering ethics. Address: Office of the Vice Provost for Education, Carnegie Mellon University, 609a Warner Hall, 5000 Forbes Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15213; tel: 412-268-5865; fax: 412-268-2330; e-mail:in0a@andrew.cmu.edu.

Sharon A. Jones, P.E. is an Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology where she coordinates the environmental engineering programs. Address: Department of Civil Engineering, Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, 5500 Wabash Avenue, Terre Haute, IN 47803; tel: 812-877-8279; fax: 812-877-8440; e-mail: sharon.jones@rose-hulman.edu.

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