From Scenario-Based to Reality-Based

Through some sort of psychotically hubris-laden bravado, my teaching partner Megan and I have decided that all of our projects should be “authentic”.    Not just authentic in that the work of the students mirrors the work of world.  Oh no.  The work of the student must be the work of the world.    AND…it should integrate our respective subjects:  Government, English, Environmental Science, and Statistics.


Cussing inevitably ensues.


We just rolled out a new project, somewhat miraculously, considering our conversation about a week ago:


Kevin:  So what is the next project again?
Meg: Well, we need to address the judiciary.    I have this sweet project I got from Buck that I’ve used for several years, about a woman who qualifies for and applies to become a Green Beret, but is denied because she’s female.  It’s great because it deals with Constitutional issues like Equal Protection and Due Process, and it has so many facets of the court system, like appeals and amicus briefs and precedents.
Kevin:  Awesome.  But how do we incorporate environmental science or statistics?
Meg: Yeah, I don’t know.  Also, it’s a scenario.  It’s not a real case.  So the students will probably call us out on that.
Kevin: [cuss]
Meg:  Yeah.   Also, [cuss] and [cussity cuss cuss]
(Meg is an excellent cusser.)
Kevin:  Well, my sister-in-law is a lawyer who deals with environmental issues all the time.  Let’s ask her about this stuff.
Meg:  [Cuss] yeah!


We speak to my sis-in-law, and as it turns out, she knows a lot about environmental issues.  We learn that you can sue about an environmental issue only if a law has provisions for judicial review (like the ESA), or if it doesn’t, you have to invoke NEPA.  Also, you have to have “standing”.  However, invoking NEPA doesn’t (immediately) get us to the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, so boo.  In a later conversation…


Kevin: NEPA is complicated.
Meg:  Yeah, and it doesn’t get us to the Constitution.
Kevin:  [CUSS].   So is there a way that we can find a real case that deals with the environment that might invoke the constitution instead of NEPA?
Meg: Hmmm…let’s look at the bill of rights… (pause whilst she reads)….There it is!  Eminent Domain!  That’s going to be our way there – maybe someone is trying to infringe on land somewhere.
Kevin:  Sweet!  Let’s start lookin’.


Subsequent searches for “eminent domain” and “environmental issues” lead us to discover a Supreme Court case from 2005, Kelo vs City of New London, and the writings of several libertarians bemoaning that particular ruling, and that leads us to this article about a case in Texas.  Further investigation leads us to an LA Times article, and a NY Times article.


If you don’t want to read the links (though honestly, you should) here’s the upshot: TransCanada, the company that wants to build the Keystone XL Pipeline, is buying land across the US, upon which to build the pipeline, assuming that they get the permit to do so.   In some cases, if the land owner does not want to sell, they are threatening Eminent Domain, using Kelo v New London to back up their threats.   A farmer in Texas, Julia Trigg Crawford, has refused to sell, got a restraining order against TransCanada, but then was ruled against in the local court.  She is appealing the ruling.
How perfect is this?   5th Amendment rights.  Supreme Court, and Texas Supreme Court cases that are pertinent.    Transport of oil = energy policy considerations.   All we need is a connection to Statistics.  Uh…hmmmm….well….hmmmm.
Enter Meg again: “Could students determine the probability of an oil spill?”  Oooh.  That gets the wheels rolling, and soon we find this report from Cornell University, outlining the impact on the economy from tar-sands oil spills (which are different than conventional crude oil spills, I’ve come to learn).    Now the environmental science can switch from energy policy – which was addressed in the last project – to examining means of hydrocarbon clean-up, and specifically bioremediation.  That gets us to the biology of bacteria, and the bio-chemistry of cellular respiration.

So what about labs?  I call my geologist friend who, for a living, happens to clean up spilled hydrocarbons, and he talks me through his work around bioremediation, and the kinds of testing they do, which is pretty expensive.   Also, most bioremediation takes weeks, if not months for bacteria in situ to chew through a spill.   Ultimately, it occurs to me that the students might not even know that all sorts of bacteria reside in the ground, and just taking samples and culturing bacteria from the soil samples might be a great lab…AND…by taking several samples, and creating several cultures, I would bet that each petri dish will have a different number of colonies, and enough dishes will give us some sort of distribution.   Will it be a normal distribution?   We can certainly find out, et voila!  Statistics.

And a bit of research about Poisson distributions proved to be helpful too. By looking at rates of oil spills in the past, we can carry out some calculations for the probability of a spill occurring in specific time span.

In a second lab, we’ll have the students design a test to measure the speed of transport of gasoline and motor oil through various types of soil.  This sort of data can actually be used by professionals in the field – and even though that sort of data surely exists, the students can add to the collective body of knowledge about the topic.  My thinking is that we can also have my geologist friend come speak to the class about his work around bioremediation, and they can give him the results of their testing of soils.

Ultimately, for this project, students must:
  1.        Determine the likelihood that this case will go to the US Supreme Court, and discuss the most likely path.
  2.        Carry out a mock Supreme Court hearing about the case, based upon arguments on the merits of the case, including their experimental findings.
So truth be told, it’s not completely reality based; there is a mock hearing – but the students, when we asked them about this upcoming project, specifically asked to do a mock hearing or something like it. They are definitely into both the fact that this is a real case, and into the notion of having a debate.

One last thing.   We rolled out the project Thursday.   We had students read the three articles from TPM, LA Times and NY Times (linked above), so that effectively, journalists wrote our “Entry Documents”.  Then we asked them to create a timeline of events, and create questions and concerns about the issues.  Check out the photo below.  Those of you who are PBL teachers might recognize the timeline as what the students know, and the questions as what the students need to know.   In this project, we didn’t create a formal list with those typical headings.

A few conclusions:
  1. Moving from the scenario-based to the reality-based is really hard, but also quite satisfying.  It makes me, as the teacher, learn a lot.
  2. My teaching partner is cussing brilliant.
A few questions for the readers, especially if you are a math or biology nerd:
  1. What do you think of the labs?   Sufficient?   And how long does it take to grow a culture?  Anyone done something like that before?
  2. What about the stats?    Any other ideas for bringing statistics into the project?  It could be that we could calculate the probability of a spill somewhere along the pipeline, but I don’t really know how to do that.   Suggestions are welcome.