The Landfill

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.

Chemistry 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:
Social issues.

Ethics/Values Issues Raised by this Lesson:
Prioritizing values--risking health vs. lowering property values; role of environmental experts in affecting public policy.

Lesson Plan:

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 and community."

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 private citizens.

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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