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Engaging Abstract Topics

Environmental public health issues are general perceived by most Americans as abstract, because few people suffer the direct consequences of environmental degradation.  To combat ambivalence over abstract topics, I have found it important to bring the discussion of these issues to a local scale, whenever possible.  For the first SLD, it was difficult for students to discuss global climate change on a more personal level (beyond small changes in personal behavior) and this discussion proved to be the most frustrating for most students.  In subsequent discussions, such as the healthy design of communities, students had no difficulty identifying ways in which our own community could be improved by applying concepts of  “new urbanism” and “sustainability” and finding ways for immediate action.  Students left this discussion very energized and empowered.

Another effective tool was assigning a case study prior to the discussion, especially when the issue discussed had no clear example in our local community.  This was especially helpful in our discussion about “environmental justice”, in which student leaders chose their own case study.  This technique also produced a very animated and rich discussion because the case study provided concrete examples of otherwise abstract ideas of environmental justice.  Students in one discussion were so interested in the case that they decided to research the current status of the community presented.  I saw reference to that case in the final exam as students used it to demonstrate environmental justice principles.