Chronology Current Month Current Thread Current Date
[Year List] [Month List (current year)] [Date Index] [Thread Index] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Prev] [Date Next]

Why teach environmental issues

Largely because most environmentaly issues rely on science that is not
yet enshrined in the field as being correct.

Enshrined topics have bored many students (not most of us who are teaching
physics) because of the fact that they are dead theories -- whether they are
considered correct or not. In many students' minds, theories obviously in
the process of development are considered alive, and worthy of study.

Wrapping discussions of some of physics in the context of environmentalism
has the potential of capturing their attention while we discuss other topics
nearer to the focus of our present curriculum. It can even be assigned as
problems to solve without focusing on the social
issue, but the technical content which must be understood to help set policy
or form an opinion.

Examples of questions to ask:

Is UV radiation absorbed (reflected, refracted, amplified) by the
ozone layer ? To what extent ? How does it depend on the ozone thickness ?

Can we replace ozone generators at the surface of the earth to
replenish it ?

How much more energy would reach the surface if the ozone layer was
not present ?

If _all_ the sun's energy hit the surface (or atmosphere) of the
earth and was absorbed and not radiated out, how long would it take for the
average temperature of the atmosphere to increase one degree ?

What is the effect of putting R-11 insulation around your water heater ?

How much of the heat (pardon the expression) loss from typical
residences is due to each of the modes of heat transfer ?

How much energy is dissipated by cross-country transmission lines ?

If power companies could rent solar panels for the cost of
electricity today, why don't we just buy solar panels and run our existing
home appliances of them today ?

What is the Coefficient of Performance of a refrigerator made in
1975 ? in 1995 ? Is it cost effective to buy a new one if the old one is
still working ?

There are other questions about automobiles and decisions.

As members of our communities, we should help students make the connection
between the world around them and the physics we discuss. I don't have to
teach the greenhouse effect or ozone depletion, but I have found questions
like the ones above, with numbers provided by me or as research questions,
to generate far more interest than "A tank contains 38.0 kg of oxygen at . .
. ". The questions also help them get some good physical quantity sense (to
go along with some number sense).

We notice scientifically illiterate decision-makers relying on the
scientific community to advise them, but decisions are made very slowly in
some circles because the non-technical decision-makers have to be educated
first. If they had an education which helped them understand social issues
with significant science content, they would have been able to get educated
on the issues faster.

Even apparently obvious bits like the greenhouse effect can cause
significant debate. If the topic is controversial but directly related to
physics, I will deal with it.

If I wanted to teach social science, I would go get certified in it.

I have heard several teachers in social sciences say their courses aren't
designed to address science issues. With the above attitude, only students
who enroll in course on environmental issues get the connection. Physics
teachers don't teach social issues and the social science teachers don't
teach physics.

Tom Russ
Brookstone School
Columbus, Georgia