A revised version of an individual lesson plan developed by
Joyce Margolis, Oceanside High School, Oceanside, Long Island, NY
Courses for Which the Lesson is Intended:
Earth science classes.
Types of Teaching/Learning Activities Employed in this Lesson:
Students discuss the risks a landfill may pose to a community. The setting is a school board faced with a decision about whether to close a school until the landfill is capped (a 3 year period). Students are asked to determine (and defend) how they would vote.
Category that Best Describes this Lesson:
Ethics/Values Issues Raised by this Lesson:
Prioritizing values--risking health vs. lowering property values; role of environmental experts in affecting public policy.
The teacher distributes the following scenario to students:
An old landfill site in Lakeville borders an elementary school. From
1950 until 1965 it was an active landfill. During this time the landfill
was used by several sanitation and chemical companies for disposal of their
wastes. Assured that the landfill site posed no health hazards, the Lakeville
community opened the elementary school in 1985. Children can be seen playing
in the landfill's shadow. Although the landfill has existed since 1950,
no problems with it were raised until quite recently. The two reasons the
landfill is now an issue are:
1) Having determined that it contains large quantities of highly toxic
chemicals the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has designated the
landfill a "Superfund" site. The landfill will be capped to reduce the
likelihood that toxins will leach out. Construction will disturb the materials
in the landfill. The project will last approximately 3 years.
2) A new housing development of about 100 homes has been built 3 miles
from the school. Although there is an elementary school one mile from the
development, it is overcrowded. So, the school board decided to send children
in the new development to the school next to the landfill.
The school principal's home is next to the school. The principal's view
is that the landfill poses no danger to the health of the children. If
she thought it did, she states, "I wouldn't be willing to live where I
do." Others who live near the school would like to keep the school open.
In addition to favoring sending their children to a nearby school, they
are concerned that closing the school will affect the value of their homes.
However, residents in the new housing development are concerned about
health risks to their children. They would like the school to be closed
and have their children sent to another school over the next 3 years.
A special school board meeting is taking place as a result of the issue.
The environmental engineer hired by the school board states, "Although
the capping process is probably harmless, there always is some risk that
some type of toxic exposure could result. Still, the risk isn't high enough
to force the government to close the school or require residents to leave
until the work is finished. It's really the board's decision." The EPA
engineer states, "There is no danger to anyone near the landfill, and the
capping procedure presents very little or no risk to the surrounding school
The following discussion is very emotional. There is standing room only
in the school auditorium, with speaker after speaker strongly expressing
his or her views.
Now it is time for the board to make its decision. As a member of the
board, how do you vote? Explain your decision, presenting the strongest
reasons you can in support of your view.
The discussion can be conducted in various ways. For example, a portion
of the class could play the role of school board members, with other students
playing the roles of engineers and concerned citizens. Alternatively, the
class could divide into several boards, each of which carries on its own
deliberations and then reports its conclusions to the entire class. Or
there could simply be a class discussion of the issues without role-playing.
Finally, regardless of how the discussion is structured, students could
be asked to write up their views of the situation (either before or after
the discussion--or both before and after).
This lesson may seem to be more about public policy than science. However,
science plays an important role. First, the landfill issue facing the community
is the direct result of industrial developments connected with biology,
chemistry, and the earth sciences. However, aside from questions about
the role scientists may have in creating difficult issues related
to public health and safety, it is clear that scientists (and, in this
case, engineers) have some responsibility to provide public constituencies
with reliable information that can be used to resolve those issues.
Although this is not emphasized in the scenario above, one of the most
important tasks scientists and engineers have in situations like this is
to present needed information in ways that can be understood and put to
relevant use by concerned citizens, and especially those whose responsibility
is to make decisions that affect public health and welfare. This is a good
time for future scientists and engineers to begin thinking about the importance
of being able to form bridges between the world of expertise they will
enter and the general public.
At the same time, this scenario should help students who will never
become scientists or engineers understand why it is important for them
to acquire at least minimal scientific literacy so that they will be in
a better position to interpret expert reports and testimony they may need
in order to make responsible decisions--whether as public officials or
Another feature of this lesson is that students are asked to imagine
themselves having to make an important decision in the public eye in an
emotionally intense setting. This adds high drama to an already complicated
situation. In such circumstances it may be difficult to remain clear-headed
and composed. Teachers may need to remind students that the psychological
forces that lead us to decide in one way or another are not necessarily
good reasons from the standpoint of justification. The psychological
forces may explain why a particular decision is actually made. But
justifications seek to determine how one ought to decide.
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