Indira Nair and Sharon Jones
crisis of sustainability and the problems of education are in
large measure a crisis of knowledge. But is the problem as is
commonly believed, that we do not know enough? Or, that we know
too much? Or, that we do not know enough about some things and
too much about other things?
~ David Orr 
literacy is) how to ask three questions to the experts that include
"what can happen," "what are the odds," and
"how do you know."
~ Stephen Schneider 
of the most influential factors in shaping sensibilities and language
is the need to make decisions in daily activities. It is in connecting
with these decisions that environmental education can make lasting
behavioral changes. Environmental literacy, an essential part
of undergraduate education, is best taught with an approach that
weaves together the necessary disciplinary knowledge within a
the past ten years, we have been developing an environmental literacy
(EL) course at Carnegie Mellon (CM) and Rose Hulman Institute
of Technology (RHIT). At CM, it is a general studies interdisciplinary
course taken by students of diverse majors. At RHIT, the students
in the course are engineers. The objective of the course is to
enable students to make informed decisions in the context of environmental
issues relating to daily conduct and participation in society.
To this end, we are in the process of completing a web-based teacher's
text with support from the National Science Foundation. We are
developing this text with a modular structure so that teachers
may incorporate relevant units in courses as appropriate.
define EL as a capability for a contextual and detailed understanding
of an environmental issue in order to enable analysis, synthesis,
evaluation, and decision making at a "citizen's level."
A survey of our colleagues helped us define the basis of the scientific
part of EL as three broad principles and their consequences: conservation
of mass, conservation of energy, and an understanding of risk
and uncertainty . We use a systems approach, being explicit about
the scientific definitions and principles as models of the world,
being continually refined, discussions of scientific and technological
uncertainty, as well as of our values, behavior, ethos and ethics
that influence the environment.
College students come into such a course with varying degrees
of knowledge and comprehension about the environment. They bring
passion, emotions and preconceived opinions. A central responsibility
of any course is conceptual change . We need to recognize the
knowledge they bring, and equip them with a framework for competent
and informed decision making about the environment. Concept maps
are a great tool for enabling students to express their prior
knowledge explicitly, to detect and correct any misconceptions,
and to build and integrate new knowledge [4,5]. We begin each
major topic by asking the students first to express their conceptual
network on the topic in a map of some kind.
learning environment is one of active, problem-based, experiential
learning. Students are encouraged to discuss their own value systems,
and behaviors in activities and decisions that affect the environment.
For example, they keep logs of their water, electricity and paper
use for a length of time, and then calculate how much water the
local water authority handled for them during their four college
years. They also estimate the amount of CO2 their electricity
use put into the air and how many trees contributed to their paper
use during this period. In many of the assignments, students work
in groups. Other decision-making projects include: Life Cycle
Analysis of consumer products and role-playing of case studies.
Salmon in the Pacific northwest, Municipal Landfill Siting and
the "Kyoto Conference" are some of these cases.
KNOWLEDGE IN TERMS OF SYSTEMS
The core knowledge is taught in terms of systems. We identified
a fundamental core of knowledge areas (principles and methods)
that is a sufficiently comprehensive set so that the problem area
of "environment" can be understood without disciplinary
expertise. These core knowledge areas include an understanding
interaction of the atmosphere, lithosphere, hydrosphere, biosphere,
o first and second laws of thermodynamics, practiced as energy
o law of conservation of mass practiced as materials balances
o ecological structures and biological evolution
o interaction between population growth and resource consumption
o industrial ecology, and life cycle analysis frameworks
o risk, focusing on how quantitative risk is calculated, how it
is communicated, and how it can be managed
o regulatory and ethical frameworks
course seeks to provide students with the ability to: apply a
systems approach and understand the limitations of system models;
build from their initial understanding of an issue including using
reliable sources of information and being able to discriminate
among the data; and, analyze, synthesize, and evaluate alternate
his book, The Web of Life, Fritjof Capra defines a system as "an
integrated whole whose essential properties arise from the relationships
between its parts" . Capra lists the properties of systems
as "networks, boundaries, cycles, flow-through, development
(growth), and dynamic balance." This succinct list of characteristics
guides our presentation of concepts for environmental literacy.
Concept maps provide a natural venue for representing the system.
an introduction to literacy and the environment as a whole, through
an exercise emphasizing their own definitions and values, we set
the context for the subject matter in terms of seven systems:
the sun-earth (or atmospheric) system, energy systems, material
systems, ecological system, ethical systems, institutional systems,
and risk systems.
exercises are included below in an appendix to illustrate the
range. The first is the exercise students begin in the very first
class meeting. The second is a long-term project on comparing
two consumer products using a life cycle analysis . We reproduce
these verbatim to convey the total flavor of what we do. A forthcoming
paper describes the course in more detail. 
We assessed learning at both schools. Not surprisingly, we found
the project-based segments to be most effective in producing lasting
learning. Students develop their thinking and examine their decisions
in personal and professional contexts. One student said about
the course: "What this class has given me are the tools to
find out information in order to make educated decisions about
how my actions affect the environment. But more importantly, I
think, this class has given me the confidence to believe that
I indeed have those tools, and I am capable of making intelligent
decisions about the environment in which I live. And the ability
to make the decisions I will face is as important as the final
Currently, we are struggling with the design and implementation
of the web-based text, to be accessible to teachers and students
in slightly different forms. For example, the students' version
needs to start with a question about their own conceptual framework
about the topic at hand, often in terms of a blank flowchart or
concept map they have to fill in. The teachers' version contains
our own "answers" to this as well as observations about
how students tend to answer, and some hints for follow-up discussions,
culled from our decade of experience.
 Orr, D.W., Ecological Literacy : Education and the Transition
to a Postmodern World, Albany, NY : SUNY Press, 1992.
 Schneider, S., "Defining Environmental Literacy,"
TREE, 12(11), 1997, page 457.
 Atman, C.J. and I. Nair, "Engineering in Context: An
Empirical Study of Freshmen Students' Conceptual Frameworks,"
Journal of Engineering Education, October 1996.
 Novak J.D., and D.B. Gowin, Learning How to Learn, New York:
Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, MA 1984.
 Hyerle, D., Visual Tools for Constructive Knowledge, Alexandraia
VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1996.
 Capra, F., The Web of Life : A New Scientific Understanding
of Living Systems, New York, NY: Anchor Books, 1996
 Nair, I. "LCA and Green Design: A Context for Teaching
Design, Environment and Ethics," Indira Nair, Journal of
Engineering Education, October 1998.
 Nair, I., Jones, S., and White, J. "A Course to Enhance
Environmental Literacy," Journal of Engineering Education,
Accepted, March 2001.
Understanding Environmental Issues
Work to be discussed in class, then handed in (paper copy), one
per group (if assignment exercise is a group exercise), must be
hand-signed by all group members.
(1) Define "the environment." Write a short paragraph
on the definition(s). Include a discussion of the origin of the
word, alternate views on the definition and your views on the
definition of the environment.
(2) What is an environmental problem? Why are environmental problems
on the forefront of news now?
(3) Name ten environmental issues that concern you.
(4) List criteria by which you would classify environmental issues.
What are some of the values these criteria express? (Define "values"
as you wish)
(5) Rank these criteria and give them weights: For each criterion,
describe clearly how you considered its importance. If you had
100 points to divide up among these to decide which should get
most attention (not necessarily spending), how would you assign
these points to the criteria? Present in the form of a summary
Description of Criterion
Based on these criteria, rank the ten environmental problems,
and indicate their weights on a 100-point scale. For each problem,
describe clearly how criteria apply. Then, present these in the
form of a summary table in order of decreasing importance:
Most Applicable (be clear)
Which three of these environmental issues would you consider important
for the newly elected President of the United States? What are
your reasons for choosing these?
(8) Now, suppose you have just been elected as the Mayor of Pittsburgh,
and the city's environment is one of your priorities for taking
action. Would the above answers change? Briefly describe how and
66-210 : Science and Technology for the Environment
PROJECT: What is a "green product?"
LIFE CYCLE ANALYSIS (LCA) to determine Environmental Friendliness
The entire life cycle of any device may be thought broadly to
consist of the following general stages: (1) raw material extraction,
(2) refining of material (3) manufacture (4) distribution (5)
use (6) disposal (7) waste management. There are several transportation
links between and during these stages.
the life cycle of an Aluminum can as described in Natural Capital,
Chapter 3. Show the geographic locations and approximate distances
of transportation on the figure. What are the routine emissions
from this life cycle?
might be ways to reduce the environmental impacts of this life
Do this assignment in groups of 5 or 6. You must work in interdisciplinary
friendly" products or "green" products is a concept
that has gained a lot of attention in the past 10 years or so.
As a way of determining which of two equivalent products cause
less pollution and environmental impacts, an analysis called the
Product Life Cycle Analysis (PLCA, or LCA for short) has been
this project you will conduct a PLCA on two products that are
alternatives for the same use, e.g., paper napkins and cloth napkins.
[Several readings are on e-reserve and there are websites listed
on Blackboard to guide and aid your work.]
Select a pair of alternatives for a consumer product with a life
of 0+ -10 years. Possibilities include:
- glass bottles and plastic bottles for soft drinks
- cloth diapers and plastic diapers
- incandescent and fluorescent light bulbs
- disposable and rechargeable batteries
- liquid and powder detergents
- alternate packaging materials
Draw a flowchart showing the material, energy and residual flows.
Do PLCA for the 2 products.
This is to give you experience in estimating:
(1) the resources- materials and energy - embodied in products
we use daily;
(2) the waste flows and emissions to the environment during manufacture,
use and ultimate disposal of the product.
[Use concept maps, tables, etc., to show the environmental burdens/impacts,
and other factors consumers usually consider when buying a product.]
Based on the experience of your analysis and personal experience,
develop a set of criteria for deciding on the "better product
choice" from the point of view of resource conservation and
environmental quality. What other factors would you consider besides
o Propose the weight each of these criteria should have.
o Outline the set of values that you considered in this part.
o How might the criteria (or, the weights) change with the culture
of the society?
o What may be the problems in implementing the factors determined
by these criteria into the design of products?
Determine which is more environmentally friendly. Explain your
reason as you would explain to a member of the public who does
not have your expertise in environmental impacts.
Look at any two products you have around for any environmental
label. Briefly describe what you learn from the labels. Design
a logo and short slogan for the green product that you worked
Write and present a report on the project. The project report
should show the detailed calculation of the LCA including your
assumptions, and approximations, the factors you considered in
your assessment, the difficulties and uncertainties in the analysis.
A detailed discussion at the end should include the problems with
doing the LCA, to what extent it helps consumers make informed
H. Formal oral presentation: Present your results in a formal
presentation in class. Each group presentation should be no more
than 5 minutes. The presentation should be a clear summary of
your work, including the uncertainties, assumptions, etc. The
discussion on page 25 -26 of the SETAC Chapter 2 should provide
a good guideline in preparing the presentation.
Indira Nair is Professor of Engineering and Public Policy and
Vice Provost for Education at Carnegie Mellon University. Her
current teaching includes courses in environmental science and
engineering ethics. Address: Office of the Vice Provost for Education,
Carnegie Mellon University, 609a Warner Hall, 5000 Forbes Avenue,
Pittsburgh, PA 15213; tel: 412-268-5865; fax: 412-268-2330; e-mail:
A. Jones, P.E. is an Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental
Engineering at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology where she coordinates
the environmental engineering programs. Address: Department of
Civil Engineering, Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, 5500 Wabash
Avenue, Terre Haute, IN 47803; tel: 812-877-8279; fax: 812-877-8440;
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