Bush, Kerry, Nader. For much of 2004, these names dominated the media as the presidential campaign stormed across television, radiowaves and the Internet. Recognizing the interest this political race would create among students, two Alma College professors teamed up last fall to educate Alma students on the issues. Dr. Edward Lorenz, Reid-Knox Professor of History and professor of political science, and Murray Borrello, instructor of environmental science and geology, coordinated “The Science of Environmental Politics.”
Dr. Edward Lorenz
The spark for a course linking political and environmental science came shortly before the start of Alma’s fall semester, when Lorenz and Borrello attended a conference in early August. The conference was part of a national project, Science Education for New Civic Engagements and Responsibilities, or SENCER. Sponsored by the Association of American Colleges and Universities with funding from the National Science Foundation, SENCER’s goal is to improve undergraduate education by connecting science and civic engagement and applying scientific knowledge and methods to complex social issues. Borrello and Lorenz quickly saw that looking at the environmental policy of the candidates would help students apply science to current events and the real world.
Prof. Murray Borrello
Borrello and Lorenz worked quickly to organize a linked course, which is two interrelated courses taken in conjunction with each another. They decided that Borrello’s part of the course would be a four-credit Freshman Honors Seminar in which first-year students explored pressing environmental issues such as global warming, pollution and waste disposal, then investigated the presidential candidates’ policies. “We looked at each candidate’s stances, then reconciled them with what we know in the scientific community,” Borrello said. Policies discussed included the feasibility of implementing fuel-celled cars and President Bush’s claim that drilling in Alaska would help make the United States less dependent on foreign energy sources while causing minimal damage to the environment.
Whereas Borrello’s class focused on hard science, Lorenz’s half of the course delved deeper into the political side of environmental issues. A two-credit Public Affairs Colloquium, the class met once a week and included first-year and upperclass student alike; only the nine students from Borrello’s course were enrolled in both classes. Rather than a traditional lecture-based format, the Colloquium was based on discussion and often featured guest speakers, whether professors, students or outside experts.
In fact, Dr. Henry Pollack, author of one of the Colloquium’s course books, visited Alma as a guest speaker in mid October. A professor of geophysics at the University of Michigan, Pollack ate dinner with Lorenz’s class before giving a presentation on his book, Uncertain Science…Uncertain World. The book discusses uncertainty in science and other disciplines, and how this leads to public inaction, especially in debates about climate change.
When it came time to focus on the environmental policy behind political decisions, such as the effect of energy and oil on U.S. policy in the Middle East, the first-year students were well prepared to discuss the issues. Through the linked course, first-year student Amanda Brewster felt she “learned a lot more about the science behind politics.” As a result, she felt more informed when voting in the presidential election. Her classmate Emelia Shroyer also found the subject matter both interesting and valuable. As a result of looking at the candidates’ policies from a political and environmental standpoint, “you get a better understanding of the issues from both sides” and how they are interrelated, she said.
While critical understanding and discussion are important, Lorenz didn’t want to leave his lessons in the classroom. Students had to organize a public forum to report their findings to the community at the end of the semester. This fit SENCER’s goal of not only examining scientific issues, but working to implement change based on the findings. According to Lorenz, “The goal is to have students inform the wider community on issues like global warming and energy policy.”
Despite eager and ambitious students and an engaging courseplan, Borrello and Lorenz ran into a major roadblock in their curriculum. Environmental policy issues fell off the political map during the election. Borrello noted that as the campaign drew closer to Election Day, the candidates rarely mentioned the environment in presidential debates, advertisements or campaign speeches. Students had to rely mostly on the Internet to research each candidate’s environmental policy. Borrello says his class “dug really deeply” to evaluate the truth of the scientific claims behind each candidate’s stance on environmental issues. “Critical evaluation of the issues is the cornerstone of what we’re doing,” he said.”I feel very positive about the intelligence and intellectual ability of these freshmen.”
Borrello hopes that students leave the class knowing “what makes good or bad science” – in other words, how to evaluate the validity of scientific claims. With today’s media often failing to ask the difficult political or policy questions, the importance of instilling students with critical thinking skills is greater than ever. The course affected students in a way that Borrello hopes is lasting. Instead of sticking to their preconceptions, “the students came to analyze the issues. They learned to think for themselves.”
– Kelly O’Connor ‘05