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Thomas A. Davis
Professor of Biology
Division of Molecular and Life Sciences
Loras College
Corn Ethanol Debate: Future Power or Future Problem?

To what extent should corn be used for the production of ethanol? Are we better off producing corn for food or producing corn for fuel? This case study uses a technique called "intimate debate" (also known as "constructive controversy") in order to examine this issue. Each student participates in a set of mini-debates for which there is no audience. Students are paired with a teammate; these teams then take turns arguing each side of the issue while seated across from their opponents who do the same. The session concludes with opposing teams reaching consensus. Detailed instructions are included in the case handout to prepare students for the experience before debate day. This case was used successfully in a sophomore/junior level, general education, environmental biology course. It would fit appropriately into any college course that discusses environmental issues related to farming practices, land use, alternative fuels, renewable energy, or sustainability.

Living Downstream: Atrazine and Coliform Bacteria Effects on Water Quality - A Debate Case

In this case, developed for a course in Issues in Environmental Biology, students learn that water samples collected from a local river show elevated levels of fecal bacteria and atrazine, one of the most commonly used herbicides in the United States.  A hearing has been called by the county to investigate the cause of the contamination, possible effects on aquatic life in the river, and what can be done to prevent a recurrence. In the ensuing debate, students must analyze and interpret data as they present the viewpoints of various stakeholders, ranging from the landowners' right to apply atrazine to control weeds, to the responsibility of fisheries biologists and water quality specialists to protect the environment.

Oak Clearcutting: To Cut or Not to Cut

The topic of this debate case, developed for a course in “Issues in Environmental Biology,” is clear-cutting, a controversial method of harvesting and regenerating trees in which all trees are cleared from a site. Students debate the issue, assuming the roles of various stakeholders, including landowners, loggers, state foresters, soil conservation specialists, deer control specialists, and tree farm owners. After the debate, each student in the class must write an opinion paper on whether to clear-cut or not and give reasons that support their decision.